By Fran Maier
Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal published an investigative series “What They Know”, examining the online tracking and advertising ecosystem. As part of the series they review the tracking practices of well-known Internet properties (including a number of TRUSTe-certified websites) and provide interactive guidance for consumers on how to limit online tracking. Below is a video they produced explaining the online advertising/tracking ecosystem.
Here at TRUSTe, we’re inclined to agree with the series’ overarching claim that “tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.” Online advertising and targeting is an extremely complex ecosystem. Numerous studies have found that consumers are poorly educated when it comes to the data processing practices behind the Internet. This speaks to a need for better “e-education” and the Wall Street Journal does a commendable job in using this series to shed light on the online tracking ecosystem and educate consumers.
Is online advertising tracking a categorically bad practice? We don’t believe so. When done in a privacy conscious manner, online tracking can bring about a richer experience for both consumers and businesses alike. But somebody needs to watch the watchers, so to speak, and ensure that they respect and protect consumer personal information and privacy wishes. As a third-party privacy certifier we assume that role for our clients. When that kind of outside oversight doesn’t exist, there is an increasing potential for harms associated with online tracking that include, but are not limited to:
1. User anxiety about being monitored
2. Reputation and safety risks to users whose private activity is exposed
3. Spam and unwelcome intrusion from over-targeting
When online tracking is done in a privacy conscious way, however, these harms can be mitigated and/or avoided altogether. Consumer privacy can be protected in this ecosystem when transparency, accountability and user choice are incorporated into the process.
TRUSTe works hard to ensure that the sites we certify integrate these principles. More than 40 percent of the companies profiled in the Wall Street Journal series are TRUSTe-certified so we did some internal analysis, looking at the data and disclosure practices of sites we certify compared to their non-certified peers. What we found was promising.
Another important characteristic that differentiates TRUSTe-certified websites from their peers who participate in online tracking is that the sites we certify participate in our consumer privacy dispute resolution program. This program (which is free for consumers to use) brings a higher degree of accountability to the process since companies are obligated to respond to consumer privacy complaints. When users click on our privacy seal they are taken to our validation page allowing them to endorse the website’s privacy practices or file a privacy complaint. We tallied up all the privacy complaints and endorsements we’ve received for TRUSTe-certified companies mentioned in the WSJ series . Of the more than 1 million endorsements and complaints we looked at in this analysis an astounding 99 percent were endorsements and less than 1 percent were privacy complaints (moreover, complaints typically concern profile management and email unsubscribe issues unrelated to online targeting). We believe this means TRUSTe has done its job in helping websites we certify achieve transparency, accountability and choice in their data practices. Consumers seem to think so anyway.
Lastly, let’s not fail to examine and expose the clear benefits that online tracking can provide to both business and consumers alike. Online tracking supports an advertising model that has provided us with countless free services embraced by millions around the world, from email, to video streaming, to social networking. Online tracking can also richly enhance our online experience. It allows for better recommendations and a more personalized interaction with the websites and apps we have grown to love, like audio/video streaming sites that remember our preferred volume setting via cookies. Keep in mind that the WSJ found that nearly one-third of the more than 3,000 tracking files they examined were used exclusively for this purpose: to directly enhance the user experience on the website, unrelated to advertisements.
Online tracking is neither all good nor all bad and we’re working hard at TRUSTe to ensure that the “good” can continue to exist, while mitigating the risks associate with the “bad.” We believe that the websites we certify will continue to lead the pack in incorporating transparency, accountability and choice into their online tracking and advertising practices, thereby protecting consumer privacy. And we’ll be watching.