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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.