Understanding Internet Technology - The Consumer View

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In my last entry, I tried to give you a straightforward depiction of how privacy policies and practices are being made available to consumers.  Important, but most people will probably not find that terribly exciting.  However, in the last session, Lorrie Faith Cranor from Carnegie Mellon told us that in her research, after reading and searching within a privacy policy, 98% respondents correctly answered the question, “Does Acme site use cookies?”  That’s good news, but there are folks in the industry who are concerned that consumers do not understand what cookies are how they work or why they are used.

Well hold onto your seats because we now move to the results of a contest, held by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, using the magic of YouTube.  Consumers were asked to create a video clip to answer the question, “What is a Cookie?”  Five finalists were selected and our own VP of Public Policy, Mike Zaneis, was asked to be one of the judges to select the winner. You can watch these insightful, helpful and witty clips at http://youtube.com/group/cookiecrumble.

…And This is How the Cookie Crumbles

Surprising to some, but not to others, the videos were relatively accurate, non-inflammatory and matter-of-fact. None of the contestants professed fear of cookies or mistook them for spyware. They even went so far to explain the various mechanisms available to them to manage and express their cookie preferences, in addition to recognizing the benefits of relevant messages delivered to them because of this technology. 

Simply put, without certain technology, like cookies, websites have no memory.  These technologies were first created to make things like online shopping carts possible; to make the very idea of ecommerce a reality. It is not a secret that cookies enable maintenance of website preferences and personalization. And - shock! (to paraphrase Trevor Hughes, Executive Director of the Network Advertising Initiative) - they allow for relevant advertising and marketing, giving consumers the commercial information they are more likely to want, when they want it, where they want it. And though it has been alleged, no one at the Town Hall has been able to demonstrate the harm in receiving a piece of relevant marketing or advertising in connection with free news, information, opinion, or, for example, an email service.

To Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, and his point about needing to ensure the diversification and democratization of content, 12 million Americans are blogging. Personal publishing is here, it’s subsidized by advertising, and there is no shame in that. It is possibly worth exploring the level to which consumers understand this concept, but identifying a need for education does not justify qualifying online media and marketing as “unsafe”.