The Road to Meaningful Choice - Are We There Yet?
At Lotame, we’ve spent a lot of time and resources working to provide consumers with meaningful choice when it comes to their data usage in connection with Lotame’s services. And more generally, we have dedicated the lion’s share of our industry-wide collaboration over the past two years to this objective. So, as we motor along on the journey towards an even more data-driven digital future, we need to ask the age-old travel question in relation to our meaningful choice goal: Are we there yet?
In response, I would say “yes” and “not yet.” On the “yes” side, notwithstanding the often sensationalized press stories, steady barrage of advocate criticism, and periodic industry hand-wringing, there are now a plethora of privacy management tools available to consumers willing to invest in evaluating and acting on their choices. The industry has successfully rolled out a sophisticated enhanced notice platform, which is increasingly appearing on display ads around the Internet. This is no small feat given the industry-wide coordination and technical mechanics required to provide granular notice and choice options on a dynamic, standardized basis. In addition to this industry program, several other players in the marketplace offer consumer choice tools ranging from emerging Do-Not-Track options embedded within browsers to a gaggle of new consumer data management services. So if you (as a consumer) want to implement constraints around how your online data is collected, used, and shared, you have the tools available.
On the “not yet” side, we still have a way to go with the self-regulatory program. We need to effectuate much broader adoption and initiate real enforcement actions against companies who don’t comply. A recent study of top websites found that only 11% of ads served by third parties contained the enhanced notice “Ad Choices” icon. Even if industry players debate the methodology of the study, we’ve got to quickly increase that number to demonstrate that the self- regulatory program can be a comprehensive choice solution for consumers. We also need to keep extending the self-regulatory program to apply to all major ad types, including video, rich media, and mobile ads. Of equal importance to the self-regulatory program, we need our industry groups (not just outside “researchers” and advocates) to surface and curtail the atypical, on-the-edge practices that don’t align with industry standard—recent controversies over flash cookies, supercookies, and history-sniffing come to mind—so that consumers, advocates and regulators don’t feel like we are playing a privacy shell game.
Can we get there? I continue to believe we can, led by the new and growing breed of companies offering privacy management tools to both consumers and businesses. As part of getting there, all of us as consumers will also need to accept some responsibility for using the tools available to us and for acknowledging the trade-offs involved when our data is used to improve and subsidize the services from which we benefit. Is new legislation necessary? I don’t think so. I have serious concerns about the unintended consequences that will follow from any government effort to legislate choice mechanisms or further standards. New legislation will shackle a very dynamic and productive industry to backwards-looking technology and standards, putting the brakes on one of the few high-growth sectors in our economy. Imposing regulated restraints on data flow will also serve to artificially lock in an insurmountable lead for the biggest digital players who already sit on mountains of data (think search and social networking) which will ultimately be a disservice to consumers. What about reining in the “edge” practices that keep surfacing? As I said, we as an industry need to take the lead in ferreting these out. And regulators can already act on unfair or deceptive practices that don’t reflect broader industry standards. (I am intrigued by the recent comments from White House official Danny Weitzner about a new approach to implement “privacy law without regulation” which wouldn’t impose additional burdens on businesses with responsible privacy practices, but will need to see more details to understand whether this new approach changes my assessment above.)
Anyone who’s taken a long car trip with kids knows you don’t answer the “Are we there yet?” question just once. In this case, the same dynamic applies. We’ll need to keep asking and answering that question as it relates to meaningful choice and by doing so, we’ll continue to find ways to improve how we educate and empower consumers.
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