Bradner's column: Religious conversion or pain avoidance?

It sounds good. Kevin O'Connor, the CEO of DoubleClick now says he made a mistake in planning to violate Internet users' privacy and, by the way, they never actually got around to doing it. But, to me, this looks far more like pain avoidance than religious conversion.

Here are some quotes from O'Connor's statement released by DoubleClick:

"It is clear from these discussions that I made a mistake by planning to merge names with anonymous user activity across Web sites in the absence of government and industry privacy standards.

"Let me be clear: DoubleClick has not implemented this plan and has never associated names, or any other personally identifiable information, with anonymous user activity across Web sites. We commit today, that until there is agreement between government and industry on privacy standards, we will not link personally identifiable information to anonymous user activity across Web sites."

At first blush this looks quite good - he actually came right out and admitted making a mistake, something that is not done all that often in the business world. In his release, he talks about meeting with consumers, privacy advocates, customers, government officials and industry leaders, but the probe by the US Federal Trade Commission and the threats of lawsuits by the states of Michigan and New York might have also had some input to his decision to re-examine the plans. The fact that DoubleClick's stock had fallen about 30 percent since the initial announcement also may have been a factor.

But looking more closely, it is not so positive. DoubleClick did not say they would not put names to anonymous Web surfers, just that they would not do so right now. They only backed off because of the "absence of government and industry privacy standards," and only have committed to refrain until such an agreement has been worked out.

But missing from the statement is any possibility that consumers, privacy advocates and customers will be part of figuring out what the rules should be. The US government has not been a bastion of concern for privacy rights on the Internet, and DoubleClick's previous plans best represent the commitment of industry to privacy. DoubleClick has not agreed to listen to the people who will actually be affected by their system.

Quite a bit of what we enjoy on the Internet is supported by advertising, and it is reasonable for the advertisers to want to have their ads be more targeted and therefore more effective. So it is reasonable for companies such as DoubleClick to try to only present ads to people that might be interested in what is being advertised. But there should be some consideration of the individual in the process of supporting things like CNN. Now if they would only forget how to make the ads blink. . . .

Disclaimer: Whatever its faults are, Harvard does not blink, and the above is my own opinion.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.

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