Don Marti

Sun 20 Apr 2014 07:52:49 AM PDT

Transparency: it's like confusopoly, but for your data

(edit April 2015. Removing confusing instances of the P word.)

(See you at VRM Day 2014.)

"Transparency" seems to be the first thing that people come up with when they start thinking about surveillance marketing. If companies that track people can just be "transparent" about what they're doing, the users can decide whether or not to participate!

This doesn't seem like a problem to people in the surveillance marketing business, since it doesn't impose any extra work on them. They're already thinking about surveillance marketing, because it's their job. But for normal people there are only so many hours in the day. How long will a user really spend trying to comprehend a "transparent" explanation of a tracking device on a web site, or in a store, where he or she only spends a few minutes? It's the confusopoly principle applied to data collection. (Just reading existing web "privacy policies" would take the average user 200 hours per year.)

Jonathan Levitt, in "In-Store Cell Phone Tracking Pits Consumers Against Retailers", writes:

Industry research shows that consumers overwhelmingly reject cell phone tracking. In a recent OpinionLab study of 1,042 consumers, 77.0% said that in-store cell phone tracking was unacceptable, and 81.0% said that they didn't trust retailers to keep their data private and secure.

Users are already explaining their norms around personal data collection. "Transparency" is a euphemism for communicating about how a company chooses not to comply with those norms.

Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky explain "creepy" technology:

Notoriously difficult to define, “privacy” has been conceptualized as a “right to be left alone” or a “right to informational self determination.” Good luck operationalizing these concepts in a business environment. Creepiness is more visceral—a gut feeling that arises on the verge of a privacy fail—and may be easier to discern.

That creeped out feeling is not just a reaction to the unfamiliar that will go away. Creepy is how we feel about information asymmetry. When you're interacting with someone who knows more about you than you do about him or her, you feel "creeped out" as a healthy warning, even if there's no technology involved.

The solution to creepy isn't transparency, which is impossibly time-consuming even if people wanted to spend time on it. The solution is to fix the underlying information imbalance using tracking protection tools. Marketing is bringing technology to a data fight, so users are bringing technology of their own, starting with browser add-ons such as Disconnect.

Tracking protection? Doesn't that break online advertising?

Tracking protection is a problem for advertising if you make the mistake of assuming that online advertising must involve information asymmetry and creepiness. Advertising doesn't have to threaten users. As online advertising becomes more matched to content, not individual users, it will actually work better—more like a magazine ad, less like email spam.

Ideally, technology would implement norms, not try to change them unilaterally. Realistically though, much of the technology that people interact with is going to be working for the surveillance marketing complex, so we're going to need some technology on our side. Technical filtering measures are better than the alternatives: transparency and legislation. Transparency is an impractical time-suck; legislation and regulation move too slowly and get captured anyway.

The Microsoft Scroogled campaign didn't actually connect with the company's useful tracking protection technology and quietly failed. But platforms that give up on the surveillance marketing bubble will have a ready-made Unique Selling Proposition.

Bonus links

Arnel Leyva: EU data rules change the marketer-consumer deal

Doc Searls: Cars as crucibles for personal autonomy

Tim Nudd: Everything You Hate About Advertising in One Fake Video That's Almost Too Real

eaon pritchard: never trust a hippy

Andrea Peterson: Don’t buy the hype: The Internet hasn’t killed TV advertising

Richard Byrne Reilly: On Jan. 1, minors in California can start erasing their online history — including photos

Kyle Russell: I Was Assaulted For Wearing Google Glass In The Wrong Part Of San Francisco

Richard Byrne Reilly: Busted: Supercell terminates ad partner for sneakily reselling ad impressions

Kate Kaye: Survey: Advertisers Rank Below Government at Protecting Personal Data

Mark Sweney: WPP boss says ad industry underestimates effect of Snowden leaks

Mahi de Silva/Opera Mediaworks: The evolution (and big secret) of mobile ad targeting

theresa: General Mills Apologizes and Retreats on Forced Arbitration Change in Terms -- A Victory for Consumers

Mark Bergen: Why U.S. Carriers Are Struggling In the Mobile Ads Business

Michael Caccavale: I Saw the Beacon-Packed Store of the Future in 1990. It's Still Flawed