Web's Dubious Underbelly

Date:   Saturday , January 01, 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.

1984 in 1999

Clearly, with casual surfers increasing and the amount of time that old-schoolers spend on the Web ramping up, the information collected from Web sites is becoming gradually more exact and useful. Such effective extrapolation of information allows advertisers to wax in Newspeak on the tremendous “granularity” of their marketing stratagems. Online advertising revenue is therefore ballooning: from $2 billion in 1998 and conservative estimates to a forecasted $11.5 billion by 2003.

So what is “granularity” all about? Not only advertisers, but also the seemingly less mendacious and more traditional owners of humdrum Web sites claim that tracking helps enhance the user’s Web experience. “You’re helping us help you” is the slogan they live by, and the oxymoronic catchphrase they spout is “mass customization.”

Consider just two examples on how this analysis of clickstream data is purported to help the user:

* Canadian online brokerage iMoney Corp. uses Netrics.com Inc.’s SurfReport to analyze its clickstream. If site statistics are able to pinpoint high-end users, iMoney may well offer those premium account customers access to company research reports at a lower cost.

* National Semiconductor Corp. uses analysis applications from Accrue Software Inc. to adjust the content on its business-to-business site. In addition to analyzing usage paths to make its site easier to navigate, National Semiconductor analyzes poorly trafficked pages to determine which of its 8,000 products to keep in it’s the company’s online offering.

The non-advertising based tracking advocates certainly have a point — iMoney and National Semiconductor customers are undoubtedly better off with tracking than without.

Browser to Big Brother

If Web customization is so useful, why regulate it? Why permit the government an easy entrance into the last bastion of unfettered free exchange, the Internet? The basic reasoning lies not in the data per se, but first, the surreptitious, underground way in which it is collected; and second, how it is used willy-nilly to bombard a user with products intended to take mass consumerism to the next level of repugnance.

The traffic-analysis tools to analyze the clickstream come in many packages, ranging from simple counters to sophisticated applications that can map a site visitor’s cookie to a detailed customer database. All enterprise-class Web traffic-analysis tools can tell where the user came from, the length of time each page was viewed and the page from which the user exited the site. Further, Web-analysis capabilities that let advertisers dynamically create a profile for each user and then tailor their content have become old hat. The first steps to freedom from intrusion are simple enough: going to the “Advanced” menu under the “Preferences” subsection of the “Edit” button, and barring cookies. But will doing so mean, however, that certain agencies, like Hotmail, that provide their service contingent on their tracking preferences, will declare the user persona non grata?

The Hammer-throwers

What is the present status of regulation? In a perverse reversal of George Orwell’s book 1984, it is the US government that is cautioning private enterprises against a pervasive invasion of privacy. Although no regulation has been decided upon “because the technology moves too fast,” the government has noted that less than 1 percent of computer users know how to stop cookies.

The industry is presently playing a dicey balancing act, where companies, like armament dealers, are profiteering off the anonymity seekers (by selling them masking software) as well as off the advertisers (by regaling them with personalized ad-delivery mechanisms). But at heart, the issue is much more than a technological contest: it is an ideological one.

In 1984, in its inimitable flamboyance, Apple Computers released its famous ad on why the year would differ from the book. Among standardized crowds of bald men dressed in all-conforming and perilously dull gray, we first hear the haunting chants of the “Information Purification Directive”:

Our Unification of Thought is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!

In the next scene, a woman in red shorts, with a powerful exertion of her rippling muscles, flings a hammer that shatters the screen.

If the ad were to be refashioned for today’s reality, this is how it would run: first, a constellation of smiling, well-dressed advertising agency executives on the gigantic screen, welcoming individualistic men and women, athletic or not, dressed in red shorts or not, as long as they get to analyze the idiosyncrasies of the hammer-throwers. That is, individuality is to be prized just so long as it is explicitly tracked, carefully analyzed and scrupulously recorded.