Controversial Internet advertising firm DoubleClick, Inc. has reportedly caved in to pressure from consumer groups, U.S. states and advertisers to stop tracking individuals by name over the Internet.
In a widely-reported mea culpa, DoubleClick Chief Executive Kevin O’Connor said in a statement, “We commit today, that until there is agreement between government and industry on privacy standards, we will not link personally identifiable information to anonymous user activity across Web sites.”
O’Connor admitted that he had “made a mistake by planning to merge names with anonymous user activity across Web sites,” but emphasized that the company had never implemented the plan.
Self Serving Move
Many observers believe that DoubleClick’s move is nothing more than an effort to deflect attention away from the controversy — so that it can go back to surreptitiously putting cookies on users’ computers without their knowledge.
Left to their own devices, the company will continue to utilize these tracking devices to tailor advertising toward these users’ surfing patterns.
Michigan Dealing with Key Privacy Issue
While the Federal Trade Commission and the New York State Attorney General’s office are just investigating DoubleClick, the state of Michigan’s Attorney General’s office has filed suit to prevent DoubleClick from placing its cookies on Michigan consumers’ computers without their permission.
Whether by design or accident, Michigan Attorney General Jennifer M. Granholm has hit upon what might be the most important privacy distinction that Internet users in the U.S. will face over the next few years — at least in this writer’s opinion.
Michigan’s position is as follows: A company that is known to the consumer has the right to place a cookie on the user’s computer without direct permission. However, when the placement is unknown to the user — such as in the case of DoubleClick — the company has no such right without permission.
Michigan should stand firmly behind its position and not cave in on the issue. The state, furthermore, should threaten DoubleClick with major fines if the company does not get consumers’ permission to do its tracking on an opt-in basis.
Michigan should also open up a dialogue with other states to make their attorneys general aware of the issue.
About Pseudonymous Tracking
DoubleClick claims that its anonymous tracking is absolutely harmless, and that it benefits consumers because they get more useful advertising presented to them.
While that claim may be the case, DoubleClick does not disclose that its anonymous tracking can be easily linked to specific individuals any time it wants — or any time that someone subpoenas DoubleClick to provide the information.
In the past, market research firms collected anonymous information that could not be linked to individuals. Once the information was placed into the pool of data, it no longer could flow back to the people who provided it.
The same cannot be said for the so-called “pseudonymous” information. When DoubleClick puts its cookies on consumers’ computers, it assigns each cookie a unique number.
The company then gathers information about where those numbers travel on the Internet — or at least where they have been on DoubleClick sites. This process, it turns out, is not anonymous at all.
If the police or anyone in a lawsuit reads that unique number in the user’s cookie file, DoubleClick can then be subpoenaed to provide everything it knows about where that number has been.
Jessica Granholm should take a firm stand and become the champion of the Internet “little guy.” She has the opportunity to make certain that consumers have the right to determine whether this “harmless” information should sit in a database without their knowledge.
If DoubleClick wants to serve up tailored ads by tracking individuals on the Net, so be it. All they need to do is get permission.
Please, Attorney General Granholm, do not let this golden opportunity slip away. The little guys in Michigan and across the U.S. are counting on you to protect us.
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By the way, Michigan assistant Attorney General Tracy Sonneborn told the E-Commerce Times that DoubleClick has hired Michigan’s Frank J. Kelley for representation. Sonneberg said that he was the Attorney General in Michigan for 37 years, possibly making him the longest serving Attorney General ever.
Please make sure that Mr. Kelley understands how truly serious this consumer protection issue is, and do not give in to him simply because he is a beloved figure in Michigan. Make sure that he understands that he will be compromising the very values of consumer protection that he holds dear if he betrays Michigan’s consumers by pretending that DoubleClick’s pseudonymous tracking is harmless. It is only harmless if consumers explicitly consent.