Don Marti

Mon 07 Jul 2014 06:34:04 AM PDT

Optimal privacy protection?

(Updated 23 Jul 2014: Add link to "Why digital publishers want to be in the magazine business")

Good paper from Henk Kox, Bas Straathof, and Gijsbert Zwart at the CPB in the Netherlands: Targeted advertising, platform competition and privacy (via Frederik Borgesius)

We find that more targeting increases competition and reduces the websites' profits, but yet in equilibrium websites choose maximum targeting as they cannot credibly commit to low targeting. [emphasis added] A privacy protection policy can be beneficial for both consumers and websites.

Read the whole thing. Good explanation of why high-value content sites are participating in ad targeting systems, even though it would be in their interest to work more like the magazine business.

If websites could coordinate on targeting, proposition 1 suggests that they might want to agree to keep targeting to a minimum. However, we next show that individually, websites win by increasing the accuracy of targeting over that of their competitors, so that in the non- cooperative equilibrium, maximal targeting results.

But I don't buy the conclusion that web sites are forced to get creepier and creepier, and less and less profitable, in the absence of certain privacy regulations.

The missing piece here—and I know it makes the model much more complicated—is that on the real web, the "consumers" are actually people who can switch browsers or install privacy tools to adjust the level at which they are targeted.

And the web sites have more options than just "target more" or "target less". For example, another move that's available to a site is to encourage the use of anti-tracking technology. As a webmaster, you could identify the users of privacy tools and offer them some kind of bonus content, such as single-page views of long paginated articles, full interview transcripts, or a forum for submitting questions to ask in upcoming interviews. You don't have to wait for regulators to pull you out of the death spiral of creepy.

(update, May 2016: Service journalism and the web advertising problem)