Erica DeLorenzo: November 2007 Archives

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

…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”.

Notice & Disclosure in the Online World

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Welcome to Day 2 of the FTC ehavioral Advertising Town Hall. The audience has not waned in number or interest and it promises to be another day of dialogue, debate and, hopefully, increased appreciation of advertising-subsidized online content and services.
The first panel focused on Disclosures to Consumers: the ways they are currently made, how they’re being improved, and if consumers read, act on or are even aware of these notices. To be sure, devising the best mechanisms to provide both the most meaningful consumer experience as well as maintaining consumer trust is not an easy task. As was noted today by Martin Abrams, Executive Director at The Center for Information Policy Leadership, consumers just do not universally have the time to (or maybe even interest in) learn more about how their browsing behavior is being used to deliver more targeted, relevant commercial messages. 
So we may never reach all of the people all of the time with this information, no matter how transparent and verbose. Rather, he says, we need to identify the role of the privacy notice itself.  What these posted policies do is create a sense of accountability by defining how you can expect organization is going to behave and provide the mechanism against which an organization’s practices can be measured by the appropriate regulatory bodies. That’s very different than forcing consumers to read notices and police the market themselves.

Reaching Out

The good news is that, in addition to voluntarily developing these important and publicly available policies (note: there currently is no regulatory scheme that requires companies to post privacy policies), the trusted online media brands are continuing to experiment with new ways to give consumers the information and tools they might want in order to understand and manage their browsing and advertising preferences. Unlike the CDT-proposed government owned and operated “Do Not Track List”, this double-layered approach further supports consumers’ control of their online experiences while simultaneously supporting their continued access to the news, information and services they want.
Yesterday AOL announced a new program designed to give consumers “enhanced notice and information about behaviorally targeted advertising.” The program involves the delivery of millions of public service banner ads across the AOL third-party networks, which reach 91% of the U.S. online audience. AOL joins a growing list of leading online publishers and portals who continue to evolve their privacy policies and practices, with the latest and most noteworthy announcements being made in the last few months. 
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have all loudly announced a shortening of the period in which they’ll make anonymous search logs from its users. Google has launched a Privacy Channel on YouTube to try and reach its users by video, explaining its policies and practices by the very nature of one of the web’s most popular innovations. 
This morning, Scott Shipman, Chief Privacy Counsel at eBay, demonstrated his company’s experimentation with creating a link directly from ad content to information about that ad and how it got there. They’re testing various placements and labels that would make it easy for a consumer, if they so chose, to find out more or express their preference about advertising customization. If it’s not of interest or concern, the consumer can move on with the reason they went to the eBay site in the first place.