I see you, you see me

Does anyone care about online privacy?

The New York Times thinks so:  just since I’ve been paying attention, I’ve noticed – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 – eight articles about the threat to consumer privacy posed by increasingly effective online behavioral ad targeting.

Jeremy Liew is concerned that the recent public interest push for privacy regulation will threaten startup media companies, suggesting that the ad networks should band together to lobby against online privacy regulation.  He says “While it is always hard to argue against privacy, the impact of this level of restriction would be enormous for companies relying on online advertising.”

It’s not that hard to argue against privacy, it’s just . . . delicate.  And I think simply saying that a lot of money is at stake isn’t enough of an argument.  So I’ll try to make a better argument for why privacy legislation of online advertising is likely to cause more harm than good.

I’m actually a huge fan of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumers Union, and I think their hearts are in the right place on this.  I’m generally in favor of legislation that protects consumers from predatory practices in the marketplace.  But although privacy is a special value, it is not something that is well served by detailed regulation.

The problem is that privacy means many different things to different people, so everybody’s expectations can be quite different in terms of both substance and process.

The substance of privacy is the content of what you want to keep private.  Some people don’t care if you know whether they are male or female, but they don’t want to reveal their age.  Some are ok with gender and age, but not job and income – etc, etc.

The process of privacy is about the availability, collection and use of the information.  Some people want to opt-in to every interaction, some prefer to have opt-out control.  Some are ok with information used in the aggregate but not the individual, or even vice versa.  Some are ok with information being used by private parties, but not the government, or for a day or a month, but not a year or a decade.  Etc ad nauseum.  Few of us are ever thinking about exactly the same thing when we think about privacy.

Privacy may be a fundamental right, but it’s more like the right to freedom of religion than the right to trial by jury.  The latter is a specific procedural right, which we want everyone to have in a very clearly defined way.  The former protects an abstract and highly personal set of values, which each person may regard in a different way.

In the US, we don’t protect religion by telling people what it means; we protect it by saying that the government won’t promote any particular form of religion, and people can exercise any form they choose.  The failing of the public interest proposal on online privacy is that it presumes to define privacy for everyone.  That’s a dangerously unsophisticated view of a standard that varies from person to person and evolves across generations.  A time-traveler from before the Internet would not recognize what the average Facebook user calls “privacy.”

So how do I think privacy concerns should be addressed?  Well, by the market, of course. Don’t get the wrong idea:  despite my love of entrepreneurism and therefore capitalism, I don’t believe that the market is infallible, nor do I believe a free market must be unregulated.  But where you have complex consumer preferences and an infinite variety of potential solutions, a market is often the best way to satisfy the most people.  Think again back to religion:  people basically make their religious choices in a free market as well.

Consumers should have a large variety of choices about how their personal marketing-relevant data is collected and used by advertisers.  The role of governmental regulation here should be limited to traditional consumer protections about clear and full disclosure, contracts of adhesion, and anti-competitive practices.

The government just needs to make a level playing field.  People do care about privacy, and companies that can address those concerns correctly and creatively will make a lot of money.   And that matters not just because it’s a lot of money, but because it’s a case where consumer interest and the pursuit of money can be aligned.

[Apparently I’ve decided that my posts on online privacy must be titled by reference to 80’s hits.]

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