I attended a Spyware Workshop yesterday in Manhatten. It was held in a small amphitheater in the Museum of Television and Radio. It was hosted by the Network Advertising Initiative and one of its founding members Doubleclick. Because of last minute cancellations on the part of CA and Symantec I found myself the sole representative from an anti-spyware company present. I would have felt really alone if it weren’t for the presence of Ari Schawrtz from the CDT who did a tremendous job of defending the consumer viewpoint.
NAI is the group that helped facilitate opt-out cookies. This gives people who do not want to have their browsing behavior tracked a chance to download a special cookie that says “don’t give me any tracking cookies from such and such a company�?. It is hard to explain the tracking cookie industry while still maintaining a readable blog, but here goes:
Online publishers make money by posting banner ads to their sites. Every “impression�? is counted and every “click through�? generates revenue. The advertisers are very interested in getting good measurements on the effectiveness of their ads. If the site inserts a tracking cookie ads can be targeted at visitors based on their online browsing history. So a service industry has grown up around manageing the data associated with browsing behavior, generating cookies, and selling ad space. If you are an online publisher you just work with a Doubleclick and they actually serve the ads, track the users, and report on all the statistics to the advertisers.
This industry is a big one and is actually challenged by the purveyors of adware who also track behavior and serve ads to end users. Obviously in a much more intrusive way.
Both the tracking cookie industry and the adware industry make noise about being instrumental in making the Internet work. The tracking cookie people say that the “free Internet�? would not exist if it were not for them. The adware people say that “free software�? would not exist if it were not for them. The apologists for both warn that excessive legislation may have the effect of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Alright, not pulling any punches here. Let’s address these three claims:
1. Tracking cookies. The network advertisers claim that tools such as anti-spyware software are ruining ecommerce by removing tracking cookies. (I believe that Internet Explorer and FireFox have a bigger impact than anti-spyware products.) Ecommerce and online advertising are alive and well. $11.2 Billion in online advertising last year. I suggest that tracking cookie organizations look to innovations in their algorithms so that they can continue to offer meaningful data to their advertisers. People are going to continue to remove tracking cookies from their disk drives. If your business model involves promising advertisers that you can count unique visitors accurately and that is not true because people continuously remove cookies you had better stop telling your advertisers things that are not true. 2. Adware. I have yet to see a piece of ad supported software that is worth the pain of installing adware. Stop whining that you are providing a much needed service to the Internet. If a software product is any good there are plenty of models available for the creator to make money. Total Commander is one example. The creator of this indispensable file management tool for Windows offers a free trial version and asks you to pay for it after the trial. At this point it is laughable that adwhere vendors still bundle their pain-in-the-ass products with screen savers. “Free�? screen savers are the favorite vehicle for distributors of Trojan Horses and system monitors. Better find a better business model. How many tool bars do you expect the end-user to download?
3. Middle of the roaders. While there are plenty of reasons to be cautious about Federal legislation, worrying about “throwing the baby out�? with bath water is not one of them. The Internet can survive without adware and innovation can answer the issues with tracking cookies.
Rant over. I think the participants and the attendees at this event came away very satisfied with the debates they heard. No question that the debate is heating up. And to me there is no question that the bath water is dirty and it needs to be thrown out.