New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky understands that the digital marketing industry–aided and abetted by too many complicit online publishers–have created a system unfair to consumers. Our data is continually harvested as we are monitored online (and soon via cell phones and even TV). Ad servers take our information about the pages we visit, the shopping carts we use or abandon, the search terms we use (think health, mortgages, etc.), the videos we watch or click off–and much more–so we can be profiled, tracked across the Web, targeted, and then confronted with a variety of marketing messages all designed to have us change our behaviors (to like this product or that, feel someway about a brand, engage in a purchase, or a relationship–including giving up even more personal info). Our data becomes the key part of what the online ad industry calls a “Marketing & Media Ecosystem.” But if we don’t have serious privacy and consumer protections, this “ecosystem” will erode our privacy, consumer rights, and help undermine the role of the Internet as a democratic medium of discourse.
The lobbyists at the Interactive Advertising Bureau (whose board includes Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, the New York Times, Comcast, AT&T, News Corp/Fox) make the spurious claim that Brodsky’s bill (and similar privacy proposals) threaten the Internet–because, they argue, such safeguards would reduce the advertising that supports much of online content. That is absurd. No one is saying there can’t be advertising–we are just saying it needs to be done ethically. The public requires a digital media system that empowers the individual. Let each person decide what kind of data can be collected and how it can be used (after carefully–but concisely– explaining the consequences of micro-targeting). There should be real limits on how long the data can be retained as well.
The real “ecology” for the future of online communications is a healthy balance between commercial and ad supported ventures and a vibrant public sphere. The IAB is relying on tired lobbyist phrasebook warnings about threats to the Internet if advertising has to abide by consumer protection rules. Frankly, we are amazed that the IAB–with its membership representing most of the major online publishers–can’t adopt a more statesperson-like approach.
Mr. Brodsky’s bill needs to be strengthened, so consumers are empowered to decide what data can be collected, via an opt-in system. It must also protect New York residents from the egregious data collection excesses that we have witnessed with the online mortgage and financial sector, and the emerging health information field. So Bravo to Assemblyman Brodsky for his leadership role in helping protect consumers from a digital marketplace that has evolved based on the unfair and deceptive system of interactive data collection.