If it wasn't bad enough that when I went into the field I had to explain to my dad what I did as a public relations professional, we now have the added problem of explaining to Congress the intricacies of online privacy issues.
I have been following the action in the Senate this week as they held a hearing with big boys Google and Microsoft, along with Facebook and NebuAd – whose technologies were under scrutiny.
Facebook was under the gun for Beacon, the Facebook technology that reported purchases that people made in their profile without their knowledge or consent. Charlene Li had a great post about her personal run in with Beacon when it was first launched.
NebuAd was also under scrutiny for its technology that collects online behavior of the customers of participating Internet Service Providers (ISP) to aid with serving advertising based on your personal interests.
The Promise of Behavioral Advertising
Amazon.com has been doing behavioral advertising for some time. You will see it when you go to the site and it recommends book titles or merchandise based on your previous purchases and searches.
The Center for Democracy & Technology (pdf testimony). an advocacy group for online privacy, contends that technology, like NebuAd's, that gathers information from the ISP is the next step in a slippery slope that will obliterate privacy online.
As a public relations professional, it is my job to know my stakeholders and if they would find what I am promoting to be relative to them, but this new automatic match-to-data process is a little creepy. However, for advertisers who are finding it hard to break through the clutter with their traditionally one-size-fits-all message, I can understand that they see contextual and behavioral data as a gold mine.
Mistaken Interest and Identity
The problem is that anything that is generated by a machine is bound to make mistakes in its assumptions. For instance, if I look up diabetes information to help out my Dad, will I then be assaulted everyone where I go with information about how to control my diabetes?
And imagine the poor police detective that is conducting an online sting against child pornographers, what kind of ads will he get?
Explaining this to Luddites
But perhaps the worst problem is explaining why this all matters, and how this all works, to people who have no idea what the technology can (and can't) do. Groups like The Center for Democracy & Technology will give the horror stories and companies will continue to impress with their elaborate explanations of how they plan to secure the process.
And worse, they will stand in front of Senate Committees and explain all of this to Senators who have no idea what is being said – like they did this week. As was reported by Peter Whoriskey in the Washington Post yesterday about remarks during the Senate hearing Sens. Dorgan, Carper and Nelson understood little about what was presented:
…Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who led the discussion, said the affair had chiefly served to emphasize “how little we do understand.”
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), remarked wryly that because of all the talk about “cookies” and other Web terms, he was going to have to “update my dictionary.”
And Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked a question about Internet connections so muddled that apparently no one understood.
“I think I'm not entirely sure of what you are suggesting, senator,” the witness answered.
“Nor am I,” he said.
And I rest my case…
Photo of the eye of the beholder by Gustavo Lurcho