Don Marti

Tue 29 Oct 2013 06:32:36 AM PDT

Adtech to cookie blockers: STFU, you're tracked anyway

Prediction from inside the Big Adtech filter bubble: Online Advertising, BATNAs & the Failure of Do Not Track by Blair Reeves.

The most promising of those methodologies rely on passive capture digital fingerprinting technology, which identifies the unique combination of your browser configurations, operating system features, font preferences, and dozens of other simple data points to identify a specific user, rather than using a (deletable) browser cookie which lives on a user's device. While this technology isn't widespread yet, it's only a matter of time.

Considering that Firefox has been slow so far to make progress on the fingerprinting problem, does he have a point? Will the browser bugs that allow for fingerprinting remain long enough for adtech to make a relatively smooth shift from cookies to fingerprints?

Spammers had a point about open SMTP relays, too. It took a lot of people a lot of time to close them, but eventually the level of annoyance got high enough that it happened. If I can play Internet optimist for a minute, it's hard to see how the same thing wouldn't happen with the fingerprintability bugs. (My best guess as to how this will play out is that Chrome and MSIE quietly get their bugs fixed first, because Google and Microsoft are both trying to promote their own proprietary user-tracking schemes in place of fingerprinting. Then, while Firefox catches up, those scary business-hating common-sense-norm-enforcing Eurocrats take advantage of the whole continent's breaking out in privacy freakdom to throw the book at the proprietary user-tracking schemes, forcing Microsoft and Google to make them optional. So we end up with the fingerprintability bugs fixed at some point, but with much drama beforehand. In the meantime, each old-school privacy nerd will try something totally different, making old-school privacy nerds the most trackable people of all. And fraud rings will take advantage of the confusing switch from cookies to fingerprinting to increase their already massive rip-off of the adtech business.)

It's fun to see Reeves bringing up the old Activists want to block creepy advertising, but consumers love it meme again. I remember when Sanford Wallace was telling us the same story about email spam: how mail server administrators would be forced to take down their spam filters when their users complained about missing all those valuable offers.

I don't know why the refractions from adtech's filter bubble keep making regular people look like exhibitionist "consumers", but that point of view doesn't seem to match up with the data. Maybe we should ask Sanford Wallace where he found his silent majority of email spam fans.

Web ads don't have to participate in the same cycle of growth and senescence as junk faxes and email spam, though. This is a common pattern, and Peak Advertising has a bunch of examples of this kind of slash-and-burn marketing. A new ad medium starts off with great results, then volume and response rates fall as volume and annoyance rise. But in an environment where tracking of individual users is not possible, web ads can become just as powerful and sustainable as print.

Bonus links

What not to do when buying lists Today the U.S. Direct Marketing Association (DMA) spammed a dirty list. (This kind of thing is why legit advertisers need new industry organizations that haven't been captured by creepy Big Data intermediaries, but you knew that.)

Bruce Schneier: The Battle for Power on the Internet On one side are the traditional, organized, institutional powers such as governments and large multinational corporations. On the other are the distributed and nimble: grassroots movements, dissident groups, hackers, and criminals. Initially, the Internet empowered the second side. It gave them a place to coordinate and communicate efficiently, and made them seem unbeatable. But now, the more traditional institutional powers are winning, and winning big.