When my car dealer contacted me for a recall, I made an appointment. Then, the weather forecast turned foul, and I needed to find the phone number to reschedule. Quickest way: look up the website. Now, when I visit my usual collection of websites, none of them related to cars or my recall experience, the advertisements promote my car dealer.
Naturally, I don’t perceive this highly-targeted advertising as anything but intrusive. The goodwill and emotional capital that the car dealer has banked with me is now gone. I no longer trust the sites that I visit every day. So we have a perfect lose-lose-lose. The work of a mad scientist that we now accept as perfectly reasonable behavior.
It’s unreasonable, and its growing. One person I know is now receiving telephone calls from websites that he visited. Privacy policies are poorly communicated, and somehow, that’s okay.
I’m fine with a car advertisement, targeted to me, based upon my recent web behavior, BUT ONLY WHEN I APPROVE THIS USE OF MY DATA FOR THIS PURPOSE.
What we need is a change in policy, brought about by well-organized consumer pressure. And if that doesn’t work, what we probably need is new law. That’s not easy to do because laws regarding rights of privacy are difficult to create and even more difficult to enforce.
So what should we do?
First, contact the advertiser and tell them that this practice is bothering you. In many cases, a local advertiser will not completely understand what is happening, why it is happening, how it is impacting their customers and the company’s good name. Most likely, their web advertising is either being controlled by a third party or by an advertising agency. A well-placed email to the owner of the car dealership (in my case) will certainly bring about a colorful internal meeting.
Second, don’t rely upon the Federal government. I just did a Google search (which will, no doubt, result in more unwanted ads) for “consumer protection unwanted web advertisements.” The first result was an FCC page about unwanted faxes (!), and the second was about unwanted telephone calls. So, the Feds have some catching up to do. Instead, handle this by visiting your local state legislator (there’s one whose office is probably in a shopping center not five miles from where you live or work). The first relevant site: number ten on the list, a company called Abine. They’re based in Boston, backed by serious investors, operated by a credible team, and clear on their role:
Since its launch, Abine has emerged as the online privacy leader. And now that we’re on a roll, we’ve recruited a team committed to giving our users a more private web experience. Our engineers are building the next generation of web tools, our marketing and press teams are advocates for change, and our support and operations staff go beyond service to provide daily advice to those navigating the complexities of online privacy.
Feeling good about what they’ve written on the web is one thing, but the necessary action is to download their app, and for this, one must provide some personal information. Yes, there’s a Better Business Bureau bug at the bottom of the page, and yes, their blog does a fine job in explaining, for example, the latest Target credit card debacle, but at this point, I’m not sure who I ought to trust. When I download their software, will I make the situation worse? Or are they one of the good guys? What if they’re hacked? Does that release a storm of additional refuse throughout the internet, all with their users’ names on it?
Gosh, we have allowed ourselves into a mighty mess. And we continue to feed the monster with more personal data every day, gently forgetting to remind ourselves that the data entered into one site is easy connected to the credit card purchase made two weeks ago, and the EZ-Pass data and the gas station data and the ATM data, and the list goes on. And everything we want to do online, or in an app, requires just a teeny bit more disclosure.
If there is an advertisement on this blog, you’ll have to tell me because, as a writer, I don’t see anything except a word processing screen. And if there is an advertisement that connects your personal web behavior to your reading this website, that makes me part of the problem. Which makes this whole web journalism thing that much more complicated. But we will get nowhere if we just accept the present-day reality, which isn’t good. We do need to change it. And that begins with articles like this one, and with your comments and ideas.
From Abine’s media kit, a comparison chart. It’s fascinating to see the list (left side) of issues to date, and the sheer number of solutions indicated by the green check marks. Clearly, I’m late to this party. But at least I’m here now, and paying attention. (You are, too, but I guess you knew that. Your computer and a dozen other websites certainly do now.)