Internet Ethics Part 1: Cookies, Privacy and the Value of Content

By February 18, 2011The D-Blog

I was recently involved in a spirited debate about the use of first and third party cookies by websites and advertisers in the context of personal privacy. Specifically, the questions asked were:

1.    Are you willing to give up your “privacy” in order to have easier-to-use websites?

2.    Are you willing to give up your “privacy” so that the ads you see on websites are likely to be more relevant to you?

Before I tell you what I think (ah, the suspense…), I’d like to frame this discussion. It’s been a hot topic in the press recently, and like everyone else I have my own opinion.

I find it interesting that whenever the issue of cookies comes up in the media or any public discussion forum, it is typically cast as a conflict between unsuspecting Internet users and snooping, unscrupulous marketers or big corporations who spy on them online. Given this context when we ask ourselves whether we’re willing to give up our “privacy”, the gut reaction is to say “No, definitely not!” Right?

My feeling is that we have been collectively missing the point and debating the wrong questions. Let me explain what I mean by this.

I believe that it’s way past time we shifted the debate. Rather than asking whether we’re willing to give up privacy (especially considering what we’re actually giving up with cookies), we should ask ourselves instead what we are willing to give up in exchange for NOT giving up that information.

We all know the saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, yet we expect free (quality – there’s plenty of free spam to be had) web content. Web content is not free. Someone has to think it up, generate it, upload it and maintain it. That “someone” needs to make a living, like the rest of us. One way to pay for content is through ads, the other through paid subscription. And other than developing new, more sophisticated technologies to satisfy even the most stringent privacy hawks, I don’t believe there exists a viable third option – at least not yet.

It’s time we had a public discussion about the quid pro quo of content and cookies. The “Little ‘i’” initiative, a self-regulatory effort on the part of the advertising industry that was proposed last year, was aiming at this, in part. The idea was that by clicking on the ‘i’ users could see not just what information was being collected about them, but what they would be giving up by choosing to opt out.

Image: Little 'i' Icon - Confluence Digital

Don’t get me wrong, I support anyone’s right to opt out, it should be made available to all, but the individual who chooses to opt out should be making an informed decision. They should know that opting out would result in loss of access to content unless they chose to pay a fee to view it.

Yes, we give up a tiny bit of information (debatable whether it’s actually “privacy”) to cookies in exchange and are served ads, but despite the tone of the debate, for most of use it’s not really a concern. If enough of us truly cared, we’d all be endorsing the subscription model, and it is available on some sites. But there’s a reason why it has not been nearly as successful. That is because when it comes down to it, nobody really wants to pay for content.

So, what do I think?

As a professional “geek in a suit” I rely on cookies to do my job. They are the tools of precision online marketing and advertising that I use to help clients succeed. I set up paid search campaigns and configure re-targeting for my clients. In other words, I would be a hypocrite to complain about cookies.

But even as a private netizen, I appreciate cookies and what they do for me. I rarely clear my cache and I keep cookies enabled. cookies make my life easier. I don’t have to remember every password to every website I visit. Cookies save me time. I appreciate being served up relevant content and relevant ads and I am delighted when I discover a new product through a well-targeted ad on Facebook or Amazon (especially if my friends “Like” it). That’s because as a working mother of three I don’t have a lot of time, and having products and services and content find me means I don’t have to waste time looking for them. Yes, I’m one of those geeks who shape her advertising environment by flagging irrelevant ads and giving a thumbs up or Like to the relevant ones. (And if I could do all of my shopping online, I would.)

Bottom line, I’m personally willing to give up some “privacy” and take a small risk to have all those amenities. That’s because I understand not just what I am giving up, but what I am gaining in return. So I personally I answer yes, I choose to have my content, cookies and all.

Obviously, there’s more to this than just saying yes or no to cookies and content. This conversation is really a part of a bigger debate about all of our behavior online. Whether we are private individuals, internet marketers or leaders of corporations or organizations, we all have a responsibility to follow a set of rules. The problem is, those rules are still being defined.

I will expand on this topic in Parts 2 & 3 of this series.

For more on the topic of Internet ethics, check out these related posts:

Internet Ethics Part 1: Cookies, Privacy and the Value of Content
Internet Ethics Part 2: Online Privacy and Safety
Internet Ethics Part 3: Black Hat SEO and Regulation

Dorota Umeno

Author Dorota Umeno

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