Tuesday, August 3, 2010

It's not me, it's him! Reaction to WSJ "The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets"

The Wall Street Journal - according to their own detailed stats, is read by 3.5M people - "the number speaks for themselves" as they say... I wonder how they gathered all this great knowledge about their readers - but I digress... One would expect such a "leading business publication" to be rigorous, unbiased and seek to get the stories and point of views from all angles.

This is certainly not the case in a recent article by Julia Angwin entitled "The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets". The article is getting a lot of attention on social media, generating tons of comments and being perceived as a good educational piece and eye opener... But it is raising strong critics from the web analytics industry thought leaders including John Lovett, Anil Batra, as well as Omar Tawakol on Adage, the CEO of BlueKai cited in the WSJ article. Jim Sterne, the "godfather of web analytics", incidentally wrote on this very topic in You Say, "Creepy." I Say, "That's What I Want", just a few days before the WSJ article was published.

Update 2010-08-05: other blog reactions from Andy Beal and Alex Yoder, CEO of WebTrends

Confusion and sensationalism

Should I say there is a lot of confusion? Do you hear me shouting "THIS IS A MESS!"
  • Ad networks, behavioral targeting, business analytics, web analytics are all mixed up into one big melting pot of "spying and bad boy". Yes, the DNA of business is data - be it your local grocery store owner welcoming a "20-something female" or Expedia "looking at visitors coming from New York seeking for a trip to Los Angeles" or using cameras to optimize the flow of highway traffic during rush hour, it's all about marketing & optimization: understanding the client and making the right offer. There is nothing bad or evil about the desire to understand people, their behavior, and please them ethically, honestly and with respect.
  • Yes, there are spoiled apples in the lot, but serious organizations take great care about the way they collect, manage and use data - one of their most, if not THE most valuable asset. The WSJ article is a sensational piece playing on strongly biased common cultural fear, uncertainty and doubt about "evil spying"...
  • Some reactions have been "look at the WSJ, they use ad networks, web analytics, behavioral targeting and know a hell of a lot about me!" or "others are doing it". However, this is not the right reaction - imagine the thief telling the judge "yeah, but they stole much more than I did!"...

What to do?

As web analytics professionals, as a young and mostly unregulated and disorganized industry, I believe we need to do three things I would call the SIT approach (yes, I love acronyms!):
  • Self-regulate ourselves before legislation does: several countries are in the process or have already defined laws setting the boundaries of privacy and data disclosure. Whenever regulation looks into something like this, the remedy is often worse than the illness, so we would be much better taking matter in our hands and set very strict guidelines and best practices.
  • Identify spoiled apples among us: an independent auditing process and frequently reviewed stamp of approval should be apposed to sites and solution vendors abiding by the above mentioned rules. Just like their are "certified organic" food or "secure seal" on ecommerce sites, there should be a "privacy conscious" stamp of approval for those who merit it.
  • offer full Transparency: sites generally have privacy policies but they are often out of data or incomplete. Furthermore, the common use of 3rd party scripts to enrich and augment the user experience often leads to additional data being collected without even the site manager being aware of it. When I created WASP it quickly gained popularity among non-technical/non-analytics people because it conveniently showed exactly which data was being collected - and if any of it was considered to be harmful by the user. During the development process, I asked several vendors for detailed descriptions of their analytics tags - most of them didn't have the info readily available or plainly refused to disclose what each value-pair of data means and is being used for. We should be able to go on any site privacy page and get a detailed view of all the data being collected, their purpose, time of retention and how to clear them.
In the past we've said we need to "educate" and do "marketing" - we are beyond the obvious. We need to act.

Who can do it?

There is only one organization positioned to offer the independence, leadership and global recognition to address those three points: the Web Analytics Association. Yes, I am biased: I'm closely involved with the WAA and I'm on the Board of Directors, but my wish is there will be more vendors coordination and openness, more vendors, agencies and large organizations alike becoming corporate members, unite and speak our voice. We need to counterbalance the fear and misinformation being spread by articles such as the WSJ or privacy lobbying groups mixing up everything into a big poisonous soup.

How to do it?

The WAA is a volunteer based organization - both a blessing and a curse. On one hand it gives lots of opportunities for those who want to get involved, on the other it makes it difficult to invest in long-term initiatives. SIT can only work if a) there is fund, b) there are dedicated people, c) vendors and large sites enters the program... so a) create a special fund, b) contract/hire the right people, c) start with WAA corporate members.

When do we start?