Retort: Cookie Targeting Isn’t Like the Spam Situation

In Tuesday’s article “Why the Cookie Debate Looks Like the Email Spam Discussion,” Adam Berke concludes that the current debate over cookies and personalization can look to the earlier issue of unsolicited email for a solution. While his conclusion that transparency and control are the keys to allowing behavioral advertising to continue to flourish is sound, little else about his argument makes sense. Such a comparison both minimizes the issue and undermines the serious efforts being undertaken by the industry to address it. Here’s why.

Berke argues that the problem of unsolicited email and cookie-based data collection are similar issues. The problem with spam email, he writes, was that consumers didn’t understand how spammers got their email addresses or what they could do about it to make the spam stop. Their “desirable” marketing emails were getting lost in the flood of spam, he adds. The CAN-SPAM Act, he argues, created mechanisms for transparency and control that allowed email to flourish as a viable marketing medium.

The email problem, however, is not about how email addresses are collected or about privacy — then or now. It was about the inconvenience of having a critical communications medium overwhelmed to the point where reading email was a chore. CAN-SPAM and other efforts brought control and transparency to legitimate email marketers, but the spam continues unabated to this day. Anti-spam technology has been the only partially successful way to deal with the flood.

By contrast, the cookie debate is about how data is collected and privacy. Generally, data-driven, personalized advertising does not make any consumer’s life less convenient. Ads appear where they would have anyway; they are just different than what would be seen otherwise. The issue for consumers is one of control over their information, not the size of their inbox. It is about how and when data is collected, sold and used.

Another key difference is in the nature of the data at issue. An email address is, by its very nature, a public piece of information. Its whole purpose is to allow others to communicate with its owner. It has no value unless it is distributed to at least some others, and once it is so distributed, it is nearly impossible to stop from being distributed further. This is why neither legislation nor self-regulation in the email world can work, and even technical solutions like “bonded” email systems did not take off. Regulation failed to stop any “bad” sender, and the tech solutions were more inconvenient than using a spam filter and just dealing with the mess every day.

The data being collected on websites via cookies today is far more varied and used in very different ways. The data includes consumer-supplied information and passively collected information, personal information and anonymous information, long-lived and ephemeral information. Unlike an email address, the bulk of this data is not inherently public, and the vast majority of it is anonymous. It is provided to a specific party for a specific purpose, e.g., buying a product or reading an article, and, therefore, there exists a specific point of control. There are further opportunities to control the collection, enforce the anonymity, and limit the distribution of this data at various points of control, and policy and technical solutions can be brought to bear on those points.

Successful behavioral advertising requires working within an online ecosystem of media sellers, ad technology companies, and advertisers — a set of legitimate companies with an interest in creating successful marketing programs based on data and an interest in making sure consumers understand and are comfortable with how they accomplish that. So again, transparency and control policies and technologies can be created at each of these points in the chain to ensure compliance and consumer choice.

For all of these reasons, a system of transparency and control combining appropriate industry self-regulation and technical solutions is more likely to address cookie-based data collection issues than it did the email problem. So I agree with Berke that we can continue to deliver highly relevant marketing to consumers in a way that gives them the control they desire. Let’s just not look to email as our model.

Jeff Weitzman is chief marketing officer at Buysight, an intent-based retargeting and audience targeting company. Follow him on Twitter at @jweitzman.