Weekly Web Watch: DoubleClick faces reputation challenge over privacy issues

Just when you thought it had gone away, the issue of privacy is coming back to haunt the online industry. Over the past few weeks the Internet advertising network DoubleClick has landed in hot water. A California woman is suing the company for what she claims is a violation of her privacy, and the case will no doubt impact the reputations of online and brick-and-mortar companies worldwide.

Just when you thought it had gone away, the issue of privacy is coming back to haunt the online industry. Over the past few weeks the Internet advertising network DoubleClick has landed in hot water. A California woman is suing the company for what she claims is a violation of her privacy, and the case will no doubt impact the reputations of online and brick-and-mortar companies worldwide.

Just when you thought it had gone away, the issue of privacy is

coming back to haunt the online industry. Over the past few weeks the

Internet advertising network DoubleClick has landed in hot water. A

California woman is suing the company for what she claims is a violation

of her privacy, and the case will no doubt impact the reputations of

online and brick-and-mortar companies worldwide.



Web sites can track what you do on them - which pages you look at and

for how long, which ads you click on, which site you came from and where

you go when you leave. But you remain anonymous unless you voluntarily

give more specific information. And once you’ve clicked to go somewhere

else, they can no longer track you. Ad networks are different for a

couple of reasons. They can (and do) combine data from thousands of

affiliated sites to build a much more complete picture of a Web user’s

interests.



For instance, if you arrive at a site served by DoubleClick, it can

recognize whether you have been shown a particular ad on another one of

its sites.



The good news is that you don’t have to see the same ad too many times,

which is just as well since there are more than 11,000 sites in the

DoubleClick network. And you’re still anonymous. Or you were. Last year

DoubleClick bought Abacus, one of the largest direct marketing companies

in the country.



If you’ve ever bought something from a mail-order catalogue, chances are

that Abacus knows your name, address and what you bought. What has the

California woman and a lot of other people angry is that a few sites are

now sharing this information with DoubleClick, making it possible,

little by little, for the company to tie anonymous Web users together

with the Abacus database. Presto, you’re no longer anonymous.



Call it paranoid if you like, but many people can’t help the lurking

fear that they might one day have to explain to an employer about

particular chat rooms they frequented, or that a porn site they once

visited might come back to haunt them in divorce proceedings.



Of course, the people at DoubleClick are not evil. They’re just

marketers.



DoubleClick exists to help other companies make their marketing on the

Web more effective, and the most powerful tool a marketer can have is

knowledge. DoubleClick just happens to be the firm getting the ’Did you

know they can know this about you?’ headlines this month. If you’ve ever

bought something from Amazon, it recognizes you when you go there again

and offers you recommendations based on your past purchases. That is

becoming standard practice for e-commerce sites.



The big issue is how much of this goes beyond the point most people are

comfortable with, and at what point it oversteps that mark. A court in

California is going to try and decide, and there are probably a few

other cases to come. Washington politicians are starting to realize that

the issue could get them some attention.



Meanwhile, DoubleClick’s reputation suffers with every headline, like

USAToday.com’s ’Activists charge DoubleClick double cross.’ DoubleClick

has not made public which web sites are sharing the user registration

data. But you can be sure that when it comes out, their PR teams will

suffer as well.



- Stovin Hayter is editor in chief of Revolution, scheduled to launch in

March. He can be contacted at stovin.hayter@revolutionmagazine.com.



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