As we press into our few remaining days before the holiday, many of us are taking the time to log on to retailer websites (most often at work) to take care of some last-minute shopping. If you’re like most consumers, there are a handful of online sites where you shop frequently. You’ve probably registered with those merchants, giving them your payment, billing, and shipping details tied to a username and password. Maybe for some of those folks for whom finding the right gift is always a challenge, you might log in to an online search site to look for gift ideas, ask for suggestions from friends in your social network site, or you might even respond to an inbound e-mail pitching a new product idea.
In most of these cases, whether you know it or not, the online providers of your favorite holiday services are a lot like Santa in more ways than just bringing gifts: They’re watching you. Santa may know when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, and he certainly knows when you’ve been bad or good. The cyber-Santas on whom we all depend at this time of year know where you’ve been shopping, they know when you’re engaged, they know where you’re going and where you’ve been, and for how long. You are tracked in their systems from the minute you arrive to the minute you leave, and often you are followed out the door as they share information about you with one another.
So, you’d better watch out? You’d better not cry? Or should you cry, as in cry “foul?” Consumer rights groups and privacy advocates argue that you should, of at the very least that you should be aware of this process and be asked if you are OK with it. So, how does it work exactly? Well, funny enough, the browser you are using to read this article right now is most likely built and delivered by the manager of an advertising network. Internet Explorer? Provided by Microsoft, manager of the Bing and LiveSearch ad networks. Chrome? Provided by Google, the largest online advertising network in the world. Firefox? Provide by Mozilla, who are….funded by Google.
Absent congressional action, the developers of browser software and the online properties they serve have been slow to pro-actively deliver a “do not track” function that would provide a consumer with the online equivalent of the “do not call” telemarketer database. Given the relationships above, it’s easy to see why. When a substantial portion of your business is built on driving advertising revenues out of traditional media and into online, you’d hardly leap at the chance to kill the very mechanism that drives that value. And, at $55B in revenues last year alone and growing at over 25 percent, online advertising is a business you want to be in and stay in.
Or you make room to test a plug-in that allows consumers to check a box that says, essentially, “stop following me!” and watch them (!) to see how many take you up on the offer. This is what Firefox has done with the Universal Behaviorial Opt-Out plug-in (which you can download here). Absent congressional action, third-party plug-ins like this are your best bet for restricting access to your information while you browse the web. Or, perhaps, someone in marketplace will develop a transparent value proposition for consumers — offers? discounts? points? — that delivers a clear, unique, and relevant return to the consumer who cries “opt me in.” Maybe that company is already out there, working to find their way to you to deliver a clear exchange of value for watching you. Until then, if you want to be free from the prying eyes of all the Secret Santas out there online this holiday season, you’ll have to plug-in to un-plug.
Twelve Days of Christmas