Does the public get what we do with data?

03 May 2016

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As more people turn to Ad Blockers, Eyeota’s Trent Lloyd questions whether it’s down to a lack of understanding of how behavioural advertising works. He suggests the industry needs to demonstrate how we ensure we only use non-identifiable data.

There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of confusion amongst the general public on the question of data. Who has it? What do they do with it? And how do you stop them?
In part, the fear is about personal details being gathered and sold-on to another party. Such a move, without the individual’s expression permission, is, of course, a breach of the Privacy Act and could result in a penalty of up to $1.7 million .

Unfortunately for our industry many consumers don’t get the difference between this sort of infringement – involving identifiable data – and the non-identifiable tracking used for behavioural advertising.

It’s a bad thing only if you want to reduce the effectiveness of online advertising and subject yourself to more, less relevant ads. But a fear of how advertisers track you could be behind the popularity of AdBlockers. One of them, AdBlock, claims to be the most downloaded plugin for Chrome and Safari, with more than 40 million users. Their US-voiced promotional video equates internet advertising with walking along the street and being hit in the face with advertising banners.

That’s not exactly helping our cause. Clearly the ad industry has a big PR job to explain the difference between identifiable and non-identifiable data, and the merits of behavioural advertising.

Privacy principles
The Australian Privacy Principles , applied by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, are very clear on what counts as an invasion of privacy. If you try to lodge a breach through their Complaint Checker, the first question is, “Is your complaint about information that contains: your name; or other details so that people would know it is about you?” If you answer no, the response is that is unlikely that the Commissioner can investigate your complaint. The complaint must involve personal information about you.

Clear though that is, I suspect many would still see an anonymous tracking of online behaviour as a breach of their privacy. Perhaps because they assume, at some point, the information will be attached to their specific identity.

The irony is that people are often very willing to provide their personal details. For example, logging in to websites using a social media ID (such as Facebook) rather than their email, in theory, provides a link between the user’s identity and their subsequent behaviour.

Even so, Facebook doesn’t overstep the mark. Even though it knows who you are, they state expressly that they do not share identifiable information with partners unless permission is given by the user. Of course not. That would be a breach of the Privacy Principles. And Facebook was cleared  of “improperly profiting from” the information it holds on people in a US$15 billion lawsuit last year. Like all of us, they care less about who you are and more about what you do. If they track your behaviour off their site it’s only so they can target ads more effectively when you’re going through your social feed.

Google is also very focused on keeping data that does not identify the user. In the support pages for AdSense  they state that advertisers must not merge “personally identifiable information with information previously collected as non-personally identifiable information without robust notice of, and the user's prior affirmative (i.e., opt-in) consent to, that merger”.

Of course, all these positive statements are lost in wordy, complex privacy statements that few people have the time or inclination to absorb.

The Good Guys
My point is, despite the opportunities presented to it, the industry tends to know where the privacy line is, and we don’t cross it. In part because the fines are so hefty, but largely because it is unethical and we want to do the right thing. Yet we’re often painted as the bad guys who cannot be trusted.

The water is being muddied a little by the latest generation of marketing software. Marketers do track people they have a relationship with. They follow which emails they have opened, which webpages they visited, which whitepapers they downloaded. They do attach behaviour to an identifiable record, and they’ll use this information to determine who is due a sales call.

These tools are fine, so long as the user has given express permission to be followed in this way. The danger is, as more sales people call up and say, “I notice you downloaded our brochure,” the more individuals will assume all companies will do it – getting your personal details from somewhere, somehow, even without your express permission.

Education, education, education
To clear up any confusion, the ad industry needs to embark on an education program. We need to make it clear how behavioural advertising works and emphasise that tracking you online doesn’t equate with identifying who you are.

Your Online Choices was a good step in the right direction, but we need to maintain the momentum. As the industry gets wrapped up in insider topics, like programmatic, media consolidation and trading desks, we can easily forget what we look like from the outside.

We can’t ignore the consumer. After all, they’re our bread and butter. We need to treat them with respect, or risk more people doing what they can to avoid ad-tracking. If that happens, it will almost certainly be over a misunderstanding over the way we work. Which would be a crying shame, when the industry has embraced privacy and is always careful to steer clear of overstepping the mark.

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