The Internet, we’re told, wants information to be free.

It also wants information to be free of government regulation.

And so far it largely has been, thanks to promises of self-policing by web publishers.

But both the industry and the government might become bystanders in that tug-of-war according to this Wall Street Journal piece.

 

Taming the Spies of Web Advertising

Where Industry Self-Regulation Has Failed, Technology Will Step In

We’re about to see what happens when industry self-regulation fails. It will not be pretty. And it will be the free market, not government, that applies the pain.

The industry is the online advertising and marketing business, notably the marketers that develop targeted advertisements based on your Internet activity.

Those would be the ads that attach themselves to you like barnacles as you surf the web. The Journal piece says, “[t]he Federal Trade Commission and consumer groups have long wanted a do-not-track protocol that can guard privacy. The idea is to give Internet users a one-click option to prevent marketing firms and websites from placing ‘cookies’ on their computers, following users around the Internet, and then selling that browsing history to advertisers to pitch product.”

Which produced the $37 billion of Internet ad spending last year. And produced no end of complaints about invasions of consumer privacy.

That’s led to the Do Not Track movement, which has yet to gain any traction in the virtual world.

To see the disconnect over the issue, consider that marketers, such as the Direct Marketing Association, believe that privacy has already been addressed. They point to the “Ad Choices” icon that appears on Internet ads that, if clicked, takes Internet users to a site where they can opt out of receiving behavioral advertising. The program was created by the industry under pressure from the FTC.

But, the Journal piece says, it’s not that simple. “In the mind of consumer groups, Youradchoices.com is part of the problem, not the solution, and it’s easy to see why. The site appears to be designed chiefly to sell consumers on what it calls the ‘awesome’ value of getting ads geared to personal interests. Its heavy-handed marketing and obfuscation all but bury the option of opting out.”

So, to summarize: The industry solution to protecting consumer privacy is no solution at all.

It’s left to Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox, and Google’s Chrome to install a cookie-blocking default option.

Anyone want to get behind that?

 


John R. Carroll, who also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town, is a media analyst and mass communication professor at Boston University.
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