Don’t Blame the WSJ for the Industry’s Privacy Woes

There are few things that unite the online ad industry. One topic that does: the idea that The Wall Street Journal is somehow to blame for spurring on potentially onerous regulation, thanks to its What They Know series on consumer privacy online.

The issue came to the fore recently at a privacy conference, where Scott Meyer, CEO of privacy compliance company Evidon, called out WSJ reporter and panel moderator Julia Angwin for the series. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be here,” he said.
That’s maybe the point. Meyer’s company is boasting fast growth numbers because the industry is finally scrambling for a more robust self-regulatory scheme — and is, fitfully, addressing important issues related to the collection of data online.
There’s been no shortage of blame placed by those in the industry on those outside it for the suspicions raised by its collection of data. These are complicated issues that for years have been skirted by the industry, which has instead of addressing them forthrightly chosen to hide behind a status quo that’s clearly not OK anymore.
Since I started covering this industry almost a decade ago, the response to privacy concerns has pretty much been the same. I sum it up as: “the direct mail guys are sketchier, we don’t use personally identifiable information, and we have a privacy policy.” And the kicker was always that people really want targeted advertising. Maybe, but they might not want to make the tradeoff of ad tech companies collecting all that information to make it happen.
It’s no wonder that many lawmakers and consumer groups assume the worst about the industry. It sat on its hands for years before being dragged, pretty much kicking and screaming at the barrel of a gun, into truly altering its practices. Even then, representatives of the industry have engaged in disingenuous arguments. The most laughable is the notion that if some form of privacy legislation passes along the lines of Do Not Track, the entire ad-supported Internet — maybe even democracy itself — will go down the tubes. Needless to say, the Armageddon talk is just a negotiating ploy. The industry wants to achieve the best result it can on the regulation front: the nearer the status quo the better.
That brings us back to Meyer’s point. The Journal has written a series of stories on the privacy implications of consumer tracking. The common criticisms are typically not on the substance of the articles — they’re really just telling people what’s really going on in the ad-targeting world — and instead falls on the title of the series and some of the descriptors. Meyer told Angwin, “When you use words like ‘surveillance’ and ‘spying,’ it freaks people out.” Many were quick to point out the Journal itself uses cookies, which is a bit besides the point because the news staff has nothing to do with that. I’ve even heard an industry executive hint it’s a plot hatched by Rupert Murdoch to destroy the open ad-supported Internet in favor of subscription models. Cuckoo.
To be sure, some of the language in the WSJ stories is overheated — the first article was a bit breathless with its talk of “your secrets” — but for the most part the articles have shed a needed light on what’s happening in an accessible way. There is a lot of surveillance — not sure what other word to use — that’s done behind the scenes. Is this done nefariously? In most cases, no. Is it happening? Undoubtedly. Do most regular people understand it? No.
The truth of the matter is the ad industry isn’t the real worry. The real worry is how this vast industry of data collection could be used by the government or insurance companies in ways that are contrary to our collective values. That’s a debate worth having.
But that’s not a debate the online ad industry seems interested in having. Instead it is protecting the billions poured into those hundreds of logos on the Luma Partners’ ecosystem slide. They say it’s not about the money, but it’s about the money.
The truth is this won’t end badly for the ad industry, the sky-is-falling cries notwithstanding. The government has bent over backwards not to impose regulations. It has no appetite for them. The current bills most likely to form the basis of regulation will, for the most part, leave how the industry operates unchanged. I ask every VC in ad tech I meet whether legislation has dulled enthusiasm for ad-targeting companies. I’ve yet to hear yes. During a Q&A I did with Luma’s Terry Kawaja, I gave him a word association with privacy.” His response: “Privacy happens.”
The Journal’s series is an easy scapegoat in place of introspection why, a decade after the privacy furor over the DoubleClick-Abacus deal, the industry hasn’t moved faster in getting in front of an issue critical to its future.
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