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Web's Dubious Underbelly

Saturday, January 1, 2000

“It’s spooky!” declared Lesley Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes, after being explained the how cookies work. The segment, which ran on November 28, 1999, examined the unfriendly cookies that online advertising networks place on user’s machines to track their behavior and create extensive profiles over time. The telecast sought to conclusively prove that that privacy on the Web is a myth. Advertising networks like DoubleClick, Inc. have vociferously countered the allegation.

Despite their claims regarding the anonymity of these profiles, mergers and other consolidation, such as the one that took place between online advertiser DoubleClick itself and offline catalog tracking company Abacus Direct, will undoubtedly result in increased incursions into privacy. In short, not only is data being collected, but an abject lack of regulation is permitting the integration of disparate data sources.

The Monday after the 60 Minutes segment aired, DoubleClick’s stock dropped more than six points on fears of the Federal Communications Commission stepping in with hordes of lawyers, and fell 10 more the following day to hit 160.06.

DoubleClick, however, seems to have been clever enough to foresee the event. It had previously attempted to preempt the issue by generously funding studies to counter the privacy claims. The firm was even instrumental in establishing that tried and trusted institution to silence all critics – a “self-regulating industry consortium.”

Privacy groups claim that industry self-regulation in this case is tantamount to allowing criminals take full charge of the justice system. The few privacy groups noisily opposing the proliferation of profiling include the Center for Media Education, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Junkbusters, Privacy Journal and Privacy Times.

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