We are our own worst enemy …
Back in February of this year, in partnership with BPA Worldwide, Analytics Demystified published a white paper detailing the risks associated with the use of Flash Local Shared Objects (LSOs) in digital measurement. Titled “The Use of Flash Objects in Visitor Tracking: Brilliant Idea or Risky Business?” the paper drilled down into how some companies are using Flash LSOs and offered the following guidance:
- Do not use Flash to reset browser cookies
- Disclose the use of Local Shared Objects
- Allow site visitors to disable Local Shared Objects
The first piece of advice turns out to be pretty important since companies are now being sued over their use of Flash to reset browser cookies. MTV, ESPN, MySpace, Hulu, ABC, NBC, Disney, and others are being dragged into a lawsuit based on their use of Quantcast and Clearspring who were identified by Soltani, et al. as using Flash LSO to reset deleted browser cookies. These lawsuits allege a “pattern of covert online surveillance” and seeks status as a class action lawsuit.
Fortunately for Adobe they do not seem to be one of the targets in these suits, which makes sense considering the position the company has taken regarding the use of Flash. In my interview with MeMe Rasmussen, Adobe’s Chief Privacy Officer back April of this year, Mrs. Rasmussen explicitly stated:
“… the position we outlined in the FTC Comment on condemning the misuse of local storage, was specific to the practice of restoring browser cookies without user knowledge and express consent. We believe that there are opportunities to provide value to our customers by combining Omniture solutions with Flash technology while honoring consumers’ privacy expectations.”
On the topic of consumer privacy and web analytics, following up my partner John’s response to the Wall Street Journal article on online privacy (“Be still my analytical heart”), I recently wrote a piece for Audience Development Magazine titled “You are all evil …” While a little tongue-in-cheek the article encourages marketers and business owners to:
- Not use tracking software they don’t understand
- Not be unaware of what tracking software they have deployed
- Have a clear answer for “how and why do you track us?”
- Be transparent as hell when anybody asks what you’re doing
As I reflect back on the guidance we have provided in the past year I run the risk of becoming quite depressed. None of our recommendations are surprising, revolutionary, or particularly Earth shattering … but not nearly enough companies are doing most of these very simple things. Given this, one possible outcome is becoming increasingly apparent …
We are going to get screwed.
Go back to Walt Mossberg’s 2005 assertion that “cookies are spyware” and the related conversation around cookie deletion and you will see a clear pattern: media (ostensibly acting in the best interest of consumers) points out that what we do is somehow devious … and we more or less ignore the problem, hoping it will go away.
My friend Bob Page once referred to something he called the “Data Chernobyl” … a unexpected and massive meltdown in consumer trust associated with the data that we collect, store, and use to make business decisions. When you think about it for just a little bit the idea is terrifying … because everything we do depends entirely on our ability to collect, store, and use information about consumer behavior on the Internet.
Our livelihoods depend on everyone ignoring the fact that we track, understanding why we track, or getting something tangible out of the tracking we do. Sadly we have never offered anything tangible, we have never really made an effort to explain what we do in court of public opinion, and it is increasingly clear that the bright light shining on our trade isn’t going to fade anytime soon.
What’s worse is that we are collecting even more information across mobile, social, and other emerging channels, perfecting our ability to integrate that data into over-arching consumer data warehouses, and occasionally using techniques that even the most hard-hearted of web analysts get all geeked-out about.
We have become our own worst enemy.
Now, as I declared in the Audience Development piece, I simply do not believe that consumers are as freaked out about tracking online as the media makes them out to be … the data I have seen just doesn’t support that conclusion. But consumers aren’t the real problem: the real problem: is the media, lawyers, and potentially the Federal Government. All three of these groups continue to generate page views, make money, and “protect the common man” (sic) by throwing our industry under the bus … and we aren’t doing anything in our defense.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
People much smarter than I am have repeatedly stated that they don’t want to engage the media or “privacy police” in a conversation that they cannot possibly win. To a small extent this makes sense, but at some point I wonder if we are going to collectively end up looking like my four year old when he knows he’s made a mistake. My son gets away with it because he’s awesome cute and I love him, but I am beginning to think the collective web analytics industry is not going to get away with mumbling and making lame excuses for much longer.
The advertising industry has the IAB and NAI, both of whom appear to be responding to articles, lawsuits, and Congressional investigation on many of these issues. (If you haven’t seen it yet, have a look at this amazing “privacy matters” campaign the IAB is running.) But we are not the advertising industry, we are the web analytics and digital measurement industry, and we need to have our own voice, our own lobby, and our own representation.
Since the framework for this already exists, I am officially asking that the Web Analytics Association formalize and finalize their Industry Advocacy program and represent the digital measurement community in the forum of public opinion.
I have already volunteered to help with this effort under the Presidency of Alex Langshur and reiterate that commitment to the current Board of Directors. The WAA needs to bring together corporate members and key practitioner representatives to quickly hash out a clear, concise, and practical position on the relationship between digital measurement technology and consumers. The current WAA Board is in perhaps the best position in years to make the decision to represent the needs of our community … but decisive action is required.
Without the WAA’s leadership on this issue I fear that over time we will lose the battle of public opinion and my tongue in cheek assessment of the “evilness” of our industry will be far less funny than it seems today.
Let’s not let that happen.
We are an awesome industry full of brilliant people. The work we do is some of the most valuable but least understood in the interactive world. I believe it is time to come out of the closet, accurately describe the value of the work we do, and stop shying away from a conversation we feel is stacked against us and a battle we are unsure that we can win. If we don’t try, without a doubt, we will remain our own worst enemy.