The Growing Privacy Majority

Facebook has been whispering to reporters–and also saying publicly–that the recent backlash over its new expanded targeting system comes from a “marginal minority” of people. Other industry executives are telling journalists that only “old” people are concerned about privacy; in their view, young members of the public don’t care anymore.

Such callous expression of disdain for privacy suggests a senior management problem at Facebook (as well as at some other major interactive marketing companies). As users, consumers and citizens begin to recognize the growing threats to their privacy and its implications, we expect to see more members of the public become involved. Privacy is a fundamental aspect of civil rights in the digital era, and is also connected to such issues as network neutrality, equitable broadband access, and diverse media ownership. It’s not going away–only getting stronger. Now will Facebook, MySpace, Google and the others lead–or have to become the focus of organizing campaigns designed to make them responsible corporate citizens? Governments will need to play a more active role as well. We will be covering this issue, as we explore where interactive marketing is taking our global society.

Statements on Facebook and Privacy

From: Jeff Chester, Executive Director, Center for Digital Democracy

Kathryn C. Montgomery, Ph.D. Professor of Communication, American University. Author of Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet (MIT Press, 2007)

Chester: “Facebook still doesn’t really want to face-up to its many privacy problems. While it modified one aspect of the Beacon system as a result of organized pressure and regulatory concerns, serious safeguards will be necessary to address the range of practices in Facebook’s new targeted marketing system (from social ads to insights to the role of third party developers). Facebook’s members should have the power to decide how their data is to be collected, analyzed and used for commercial purposes. This will require Facebook to more seriously address how its new marketing system undermines user privacy. For example, the Beacon fix still permits Facebook to collect, store, analyze, and potentially use a member’s purchasing data.

“The Federal Trade Commission and other regulatory authorities here and abroad will need to address how the structure of Facebook threatens user privacy. Facebook’s senior managers should also embrace a far-reaching approach to privacy that will make this social network a digital environment that nurtures the individual rights of users. CDD, along with its allies in the privacy community, intends to pursue this case.”

Montgomery: “Facebook should be commended for today’s decision to change some of its online marketing practices in response to user backlash and consumer group pressure. But the slight alterations the company has made in its Beacon program will not address the much larger, and more troubling privacy problems raised by the site’s new digital marketing apparatus. Facebook and other popular social networks have ushered in a new era of behavioral profiling, data mining and ‘nanotargeting’ that will quickly become state of the art unless additional consumer and regulatory interventions are made. These practices raise particularly troubling issues for teens, who are increasingly living their lives on these sites and are largely unaware of how their every move is being tracked. The Federal Trade Commission and the Congress need to take a very close look at Facebook and other online platforms, and develop rules for ensuring meaningful privacy protections.”

The news media and behavioral targeting connection

It’s long been a concern that so many news organizations–or their parent entities–have embraced behavioral targeting (and so many other types of online marketing techniques) without clear disclosure to users, readers and viewers. There should be stories explaining what’s going on, exposing the techniques used that threaten privacy, analysis on the implications to journalism, editorials supporting reform, etc. We have covered some of these issues in our book and on this blog. But as a reminder, we run an excerpt from a Tacoda want ad for online sales manager: “TACODA®, Inc. ( is the world’s largest and most advanced behavioral targeting advertising network… Major US media partners include Dow Jones, The New York Times Company, NBC Universal, … [and]”

All the news that fit to click, indeed.

The Future of Behavioral Targeting Regulation–First in a [very long] series

Now that the EU’s Article 29 Working Group has announced plans to investigate behavioral targeting as part of its 2008 workplan, advocates and regulators from both sides of the Atlantic can build the case for meaningful safeguards. The goal should be maximum privacy protection. It’s interesting to see the response coming from European-based behavioral targeting firms, such as In an article for the UK-based imediaconnection trade report,’s co-founder removes the use of IP addresses from the targeters arsenal, writing that “… even IP addresses has no place in targeting.” That will come to a surprise to many in the online marketing industry! is engaged in a range of targeting efforts that require the scrutiny of data regulators. But just in case you thought their rejection of IP address targeting made them a worthy of a privacy prize, you would be mistaken. In the same article, the executive describes the new generation of data that can be mined by marketers [our emphasis]: “Web 2.0 offers a better option — user-generated content, be it through word, sound or image, which is fitted with ‘tags’. These community recommendations lift contact management to a new level. By using targeting technology that can be applied flexibly, you can develop completely novel approaches and exploit untapped potential.”

The Article 29 group will surely be working.

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Kohl & Hatch Are Right Regarding

The letter sent by Senators Kohl and Hatch to FTC Chairman Majoras this week was well-founded. Indeed, our group pressed both senators for such a letter (and provided modest support in terms of information and analysis). We have also given the FTC abundant information on why the deal is anti-competitive; how it reflects profound market realities in today’s digital ad market (it’s not the dot-bomb era any more); and why privacy must be addressed.

But we see groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) have sprung to Google’s defense. Noticeably missing from its support is a acknowledgment that they are receiving some funding from Google. CEI was just named as one of the policy groups Google will support as part of its new public policy Fellows initiative. CEI should disclose such relationships as it pontificates.

Facebook’s Expanded Ad Targeting: Follow the Algorithm

From Search Insider: “The most striking word that came up repeatedly when I heard someone from Facebook present was “algorithm.” It’s the algorithm that determines how many stories appear in the News Feed, which users members share connections with, and which types of actions are involved. It knows which friends you’re most closely connected to, not just based on how you interact with them, but by factoring in when you and your friends independently interact with the same content. This algorithm might know who your friends are better than you do.”

Viacom/MTV’s “Digital Fusion”–“Connect Brands to Consumers”

Viacom’s MTV has created Digital Fusion, “a new organization whose mission is to fuse marketing and innovation in order to connect brands to consumers.” What they are doing is, of course, emblematic of digital marketing today–something still off the radar of the public. Among the goals of Digital Fusion are to “…identify, analyze and recommend new ad sales products and opportunities in emerging media.” Viral marketing is also on its agenda, including “…influencing content and creative for novel advertising and marketing initiatives…leveraging off-network traffic: viral, web services, email, SEO/SEM efforts [search engine optimization/marketing]…Germinate grass roots offline efforts (street, events, etc.)…”

The public, policymakers–and MTV partners (such as the Knight Foundation)–will need to keep on eye on the largely stealth forces shaping the new media.

The evolution of targeting users online (or, "Oh where oh where has our privacy gone")

An excerpt from a recent trade piece that should encourage reflection and concern (our emphasis):

“Today, we can not only target by the sites we think our customers frequent, we can follow them around the Web and target them based upon the other sites they actually visit. We can also target them based upon the words typed into a box, and from where those words are typed through search geo-targeting. We can also retarget searchers elsewhere on the Web. Facebook’s recent announcements take targeting to a whole new level, based upon age, location, interests, and other online activity.”

Source: “Search And Online Advertising: A Continual Evolution.” Ellen Siminoff. Search Insider. November 16, 2007

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Google & the Public Interest Policy Pod People

They’re coming. The “Google Policy Fellows” to help staff an array of public interest groups and policy think-tanks. “As lawmakers around the world become more engaged on Internet policy,” says Google, “a robust and intelligent public debate around these issues becomes increasingly important…The Google Policy Fellowship program offers undergraduate, graduate, and law students interested in Internet and technology policy the opportunity to spend the summer contributing to the public dialogue on these issues…Fellows will… work at public interest organizations at the forefront of debates on broadband and access policy, content regulation, copyright and trademark reform, consumer privacy, open government, and more. Participating organizations… include: American Library Association, Cato Institute, Center for Democracy and Technology, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Internet Education Foundation, Media Access Project, New America Foundation, and Public Knowledge.”

It’s wrong for public interest and consumer organizations to take Google’s money and especially provide a “Fellowship” in its name. We need to build more consumer advocacy capacity to address Google’s growing power, especially its threat to privacy. No matter what these groups say (and some already take money from Google; others receive broad media industry support), there are digital strings attached, as subtle as they may be. The Fellowship program is just another lobbying and PR effort coming from a company that has a broad policy agenda. Many of the groups above should be training people to represent the public versus companies such as Google, and other big online advertisers and new media conglomerates. Giving Google a say on the training of policy advocates, let alone a funding role, undermines the public interest movement.

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NebuAd’s “360-degree, multidimensional view” of users

It’s time the FTC and the online ad industry redefined Personally Identifiable Information (PII) to reflect the realities of the interactive marketing era: it must include the bits of data about us which describe and analyze our behaviors, now classified as non-PII. Such so-called non-PII tracking is really linked to individuals. The role that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) play in providing behavioral targeting and other interactive marketing firms with our data requires an investigation. Take NebuAd, a company that explains: “[T]o date, the role of service providers (ISPs) has been limited to enabling, but not participating in, the online advertising revenue ecosystem. NebuAd creates a greater market opportunity for the entire online advertising ecosystem, opening new revenue possibilities for ISPs that preserve and enhance the interests of the advertisers, publishers and consumers on their networks.” NebuAd also says that it is the “leading the industry to a new level of advertising effectiveness. NebuAd combines web-wide consumer activity data with reach into any site on the Internet. The result is vastly more data and relevance than existing solutions that are limited to one network or site. NebuAd is dedicated to the highest standards of consumer privacy.” In fact, the company touts its membership in Truste and claims that it is “committed to the highest standards of consumer privacy. NebuAd’s network was architected from the ground up to meet industry best-practices regarding consumer information privacy protection.”

But in this week’s “Behavioral Insider,” NebuAd’s CEO says the following (our emphasis): “We don’t track individual consumers… by anonymous we mean we collect no personally identifiable email addresses, last names, home addresses, social security or phone numbers, financial or health information. The kind of data we do aggregate includes Web search terms, page views, page and ad clicks, time spent on specific sites, zip code, browser info and connection speed...within this vast universe of information we create a map of interest categories, beginning with the widest definitions, auto, finance, education, what have you. But within those we can provide far greater granularity. So if you’re talking about auto, we can drill down into particular interest segments, say SUVs, luxury cars, minivans, and then even to particular brands or models. Within the interest category of travel, we can identify consumers interested in learning about Martinique, the south of France or Las Vegas.”

How do they do that? Why, they get ISPs to turn over our data. Here the Nebu Ad CEO again (with our emphasis): “ISPs have been a neglected aspect of online’s evolution over the past several years. But the fact is the depth of aggregated data they have to offer, anonymous data, is an untapped source of incredible power… The conventional approach to behavioral targeting has been to place cookies on specific Web sites or pages. We’ve gone about it in a very different way. We place an appliance in the ISP itself. Therefore we’re able to get a 360-degree, multidimensional view over a long period of time of all the pages users visit. So what we’re really talking about for the first time is a truly user-focused, though still anonymous, targeting, taking the totality of anonymous behaviors rather than just a subset of sites on a network.”

Huh? That’s privacy protection? ISPs are going to have a lot of explaining to do about the “appliance” (built by the NSA?) watching us. I think the company better reconvene its new “Privacy Council.”

PS: Here’s an excerpt from the press release NebuAd issued at ad:tech two weeks ago: “NebuAd’s rich insight into consumer interests surpasses any other behavioral targeting solution and enables NebuAd to deliver precisely targeted ads that drive substantially increased value per impression…NebuAd’s deep insight into anonymous consumer commercial interests across the Internet, combined with its ability to micro-target the most relevant ad placements, brings a new level of value for advertisers, publishers and ISPs..”

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