Consider the similarities between piracy and do not track. They’re greater than you think, for both reduce value for content creators. And both are excuses for internet regulation.
In piracy, a content company sets business rules: You must pay for my product; if you take it without paying for it, you are robbing me of value.
With do not track, an advertising-supported content company sets business rules: You will get my content for free because I will serve you ads and I will increase their efficiency, performance, and value by targeting them to your interests and behavior; if you block the cookies that make that possible, you are robbing me of value.
The difference between the two is that there is a furor over piracy as theft but, quite to the contrary, there is a rush to enable the blocking of ad tracking as a virtue.
If you listen to The Wall Street Journal, Apple was a good guy for blocking by default third-party cookies (ask what Apple gets out of that). And it’s good news that technology companies just agreed to implement a do-not-track button on browsers.
There is nothing sinister about third-party ad tracking cookies. They’ve been used since very early in the history of the web when General Motors, for example, insisted in serving its own ads on content sites so it could verify what was bought and optimize its targeting. Without that ability, many large advertisers will refuse to buy ads and the value of ad-supported media could plummet — just at a time when we are concerned about how we will support news media.
Odd that a media company wouldn’t be crying foul. The Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, cries bloody murder over piracy — going so far as to accuse Google of theft — but his paper crusades for blocking tracking, claiming it is a violation of privacy (though in most cases, the cookies have no personally identifiable information and so it’s hard to justify a moral panic based on their use).
Murdoch’s News Corp is, at its core, an entertainment company, thus a paid-content company. The ad-supported portion of his P&L is not only small but is causing him much agita as his journalists in the U.K. are accused of violating laws of the nation and the profession.
I’m not building a conspiracy theory. I’m just pointing to the priorities that emerge when one follows the money.
So what about the rest of the industry — the media, advertising, and technology industries, that is? Oh, they blew it. They were never transparent enough about what technology they were using, what data they were gathering, and why — not to mention the benefits that accrued to their users (i.e., free content). That opened the door for other parties — privacy scare-mongers, competitors for our media attention, and government regulators — to demonize the mysterious cookie and stir up this moral panic and paranoia. The M.A.T. industries have only themselves to blame.
In the EU, government regulators have decreed that sites must obtain opt-in permission to set cookies. In the US, the industry agreement today announced is an attempt to forestall government regulation with self-regulation.
But don’t be too quick to celebrate as if these are consumer victories. I believe the EU dictum could lead to (a) a much poorer web experience as we are bombarded with boxes to tick and (b) poorer media companies and thus (c) the possibility of less free media and more pay walls. And in the U.S., it has been shown that one can whip up an anti-net hysteria and bring even giant technology companies to expose their soft underbellies. Each leads to more threats of regulation of the net. That’s what I fear.
It is time for technology companies especially to adopt radical transparency of how they operate so they can’t find themselves in gotcha moments when the hysterical “discover” something they’ve been doing all along. Under such openness, it is also time for them to learn that doing sneaky things will not benefit them. And it is also time for the media, advertising, and technology companies to start fighting back against accusers’ misinformation and explain the truth of what they are doing and how we benefit. That is transparency’s dividend.
LATER: By the way, this post was inspired and informed by a discussion last night on This Week in Google, in which Leo Laporte said he was grateful that I was going so far that I was making him look moderate.
One more point from that discussion: We all practice blocking ads when we fast-forward through commercials on our DVRs. And the industry adapted and still prospers (for now). That’s what may happen here. But one should still recognize the impact of one’s actions — whether skipping or blocking — on the economics of what is provided. And one difference is that we have to skip each commercial manually (especially since, as Leo pointed out, a company that provided easy 30-second skipping was hounded out of business as a result). In the case of do not track, especially government-mandated opt-in — that is wholesale devaluing of advertising in a medium.