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Legislating the impossible

Is the marketing world prepared for the PRISM backlash?

Cats and dogsThere is a world of difference between safe, anonymous third party cookie tracking and warrantless governmental intrusion into your online life. It’s time that we, the digital marketing industry invested in telling this story.

Last week the world learned of PRISM – a US federal initiative that reportedly uses backdoors at major online companies to monitor our private data and conversations - without a warrant. The public outcry at this alleged violation of our personal privacy has been spectacular. While there is still much about PRISM that we just don’t know, the public is now more invested than ever before in online privacy. The digital industry had better be prepared to address privacy concerns head-on. Because the storm is coming our way, and fast.

The good news is, the public has little to worry about when it comes to online user tracking. The bad news is, the public doesn’t know enough to make this judgment call.

The average person on the internet knows nothing about third party tracking and targeting. The very idea that there is a third party that is tracking our online behavior feels wrong. It feels invasive. But in actuality this is both old news and benign. Online tracking is nearly as old as the world wide web. And it only feels invasive because as an industry, we have failed to keep the public up to speed with our advances.

There is no material harm in anonymous third party tracking and targeting for targeted media. A computer that has no idea who you really are, is matching you (the reader) with ads the algorithm believes will be the most relevant. No one really knows who you are.

This tracking is in place to help you, the reader. These third party anonymous tracking solutions allow online service and content providers to offer better on-site experiences to users and more relevant advertising to us, their users. These technologies allow sites to recognize you as a user, remembering which links you have clicked and store your login data so you don’t have to log back in every time your visit from your home PC. On the revenue side, these targeted advertisements generate the revenue and profitability that allow Google, Yahoo, Hulu, Facebook, Twitter and MSN to continue to offer their content and services to us for free (or at a lower rate).

Mainstream marketers are not violating anyone’s privacy. But for an industry built on communications, we sure have failed to educate the public about the benefits of safe tracking, and the differences between safe and unsafe tracking.

There are three simple rules of safe tracking

  1. Safe tracking is anonymous. 
  2. Safe tracking is transparent, informing users of what is and isn’t private. 
  3. Safe tracking respects your privacy, protecting your personal content, connections and conversations.

The latest PRISM reports allege that the government prove all three of these principles.

We, the marketing community, need to educate the public about safe online tracking and fast. Or the tidal wave of public concern that is hitting the US Federal Government is going to wash right over the industries we have spent the past 20 years creating.