Monday, February 16, 2009

The New York Times vs. the Internet

There's been a skein of stories in The New York Times about the Internet and consumer privacy which, if I didn't know better, I'd swear were assigned and written deliberately to heighten public fears and promote support for broad, ill-considered Federal regulation.

The weirdest piece so far is in today's paper -- a distortion so odd that you wonder if anyone read the copy before putting it into print. A "Link by Link" column by reporter Noam Cohen, and headlined "As Data Collecting Grows, Privacy Erodes," the article purports to draw a direct connection between anonymous Web usage behaviors and the revelation that New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez once used steroids.

Rodriguez, says The Times's Mr. Cohen, "is "at the cutting edge of another scourge -- the growing encroachment on privacy." He continues:

The way Mr. Rodriguez’s positive steroid test result became public followed a path increasingly common in the computer age: third-party data collection. We are typically told that personal information is anonymously tracked for one reason — usually something abstract like making search results more accurate, recommending book titles or speeding traffic through the toll booths on the thruways. But it is then quickly converted into something traceable to an individual, and potentially life-changing.

From this, the reporter goes on to claim that Internet users are at risk through their IP addresses, and argue that "online service providers — social networks, search engines, blogs and the like — should voluntarily destroy what they collect, to avoid the kind of legal controversies the baseball players’ union is now facing." He concludes by decrying “the surveillance business model," which he explicitly connects to behavioral advertising on the Web: "There is money to be made," Mr. Cohen says, describing this suspect strategy, "from knowing your customers well — with a depth unimaginable before Internet cookies allowed companies to track obsessively online behavior."

Mr. Cohen's argument is almost a textbook example of a false syllogism. Every inference in his article is inaccurate. In the news pages of The Times, he's written the kind of unsupported, biased editorial that shouldn't make its way into a high school broadsheet.

The Rodriguez case had nothing to do with anonymous data, third parties, behavioral targeting, Internet cookies, or interactive media. The Yankees' star was outed through classic gumshoe reporting by Sports Illustrated, which tied him specifically to a failed drug examination by a testing firm. As SI made abundantly clear in breaking the scandal on February 7, "Rodriguez's name appears on a list of 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball's '03 survey testing." No fewer than four sources corroborated his misconduct to the magazine.

A Coursing Meme

Why the leap in logic that ties solid investigative reporting about a public figure's misbehavior to behavioral advertising on the Web? I'm beginning to think there's a meme coursing through the newspaper of record -- and many other mainstream publications -- that's not providing due consideration for a complex story. That is, some reporters and editors have concluded that consumer privacy rights and expectations are
being de facto violated, and so have decided to press for de jure solutions.

I'm sensitive because I love The Times, can't imagine my life without it -- in paper -- every morning, and can't stand this tendency that's been creeping into its pages. About a year ago, The Times published an editorial by a member of its Editorial Board calling for an opt-in standard for all interactive advertising. The very act of interactive advertising, wrote editorialist Adam Cohen, is tantamount to "spying on users" -- even if, as I've written previously, the offense involves only the use of the types of demographic data that The Times and its advertisers have been using for decades.

Then, earlier this week, The Times was among the few major news organizations that, in reporting the Federal Trade Commission's release of behavioral advertising guidelines, failed to make any mention that major industry groups had been engaged in a long-term effort to forge comprehensive self-regulation of interactive media and marketers. I complained privately to The Times's Bits Blog editor and writer Saul Hansell, who reported the FTC's announcement. He opted to publish part of my complaint -- and his response -- in his blog. (I'm happy to publish our full correspondence, including my typos -- but won't, unless Mr. Hansell gives his permission.)

In contrast to, say, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Business Week, and the San Francisco Chronicle, Mr. Hansell's report contained no reaction from any interactive media company, nor made any mention, as I wrote him, "of the self-regulatory initiative launched - and in process for many months - by ANA, AAAA, IAB, DMA, and CBBB, which together formally represent thousands of companies." Nor did he cite the other major self-regulatory program, the Network Advertising Initiative,which has been around for nearly a decade.

The organizations acronymed above are the Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Direct Marketing Association, and the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The CBBB is helping the other associations with our formal self-regulatory efforts.

"I'm not asking for free passes, guaranteed quotes, 'fair and balanced,' or any other such crap," I wrote Mr. Hansell. "You can be as tough as your reporting allows you to be. But the omission of these basic facts about self-regulation in a piece ABOUT self-regulation simply misrepresents the content and character of the existing debate and activity."

His emailed response to me: "Good point, but not so simple."

Unthinking Bias

But it is simple. An unthinking bias is creeping into a great deal of mainstream reporting that seeks, sometimes explicitly, to thread together the basic structure of Internet communications, the functions of marketing and advertising, and Bush Administration surveillance programs, into a thick rope of fear contrived to hang an entire industry. Little of this is deliberate -- but you can't help believe that the wild biases exposed by The Times's "Rodriguez = Internet Dangers!" fantasy reflects the deep-seated fears among print journalists about their business's transformation.

There's a deep, unfortunate irony to much of this. Print journalists have been writing quite a lot lately about how the competitive demand for speed and scoops when operating in "Internet time" can, if not contained, cause more inaccuracies (and more virally-induced embarrassment) in the news business. The American public, they argue, deserves and requires the deliberation that the 24-hour news cycle once provided. Setting aside the fact that breaking news, instant analysis, competitive scooping, and their attendant inaccuracies have been with us since the dawn of radio if not earlier, I agree. That is why we have, over the decades, subdivided the news business into contextual segments, and distinguished, for example, quality broadsheets that strived for accuracy and probity at any cost from tabloids that trafficked in the prurient.

In today's journalistic environment of heightened fear, however, even the quality channels are besotted by prurient Internet hype and beset by tabloid-style alarmism.

Don't for minute mistake what I'm saying: There must be a real debate about interactive media and privacy -- and real actions by companies. Rightly or wrongly, public opinion will establish the boundaries of what the private sector can and should do. Interactive media, advertising agencies, marketers, research firms, and technology suppliers have kept their heads in the sand for too long: We have avoided engaging our customers in discussion and debate about our practices and their needs. We've enveloped our privacy policies in rings of legalese, and buried them several clicks down on too many Web sites. We have allowed the purveyors of technological wonders to dominate the conversation, heedless of how some of their marvels might generate worry in the population at large.

A lot of it is unfair. But because our companies have absented themselves from this necessary conversation, we've allowed activists with anti-commercial agendas to dominate the discussion. These activists have the ear of the journalists, because they talk, and we don't. As a result, in the public mind, there is less and less distinction among spyware, malware, worms, viruses, medical records disclosure, financial records breaches, government surveillance -- and catalogue marketing, magazine subscription list brokering, credit card usage, coupon redemptions, pop-ups ads, banner ads, click-throughs, and behavioral advertising.
The anti-business activists, their enablers in the media, and their surrogates in state and Federal bodies are bunching it all together into -- as The Times editorial headlined it -- "spying on users."

Out of moral sense and business logic, our companies must love our consumers and adapt to their needs and desires. That is why our several trade associations and their major member companies have banded together to create -- we hope -- an effective self-regulatory program to protect consumer privacy rights and expectations in interactive media. Because if we don't, the Government will -- and based on the way the public conversation is going, what results will not be helpful to consumers or companies. So in that sense, I'm perversely happy about the growing volume of flawed reporting, the biased editorials, and the like. It's reminding us that attention must be paid.

I've never read a dumber story than The Times's linkage of the outing of Alex Rodriguez to interactive advertising. But dumb stories can kill.


  1. There's nothing like a good smackdown. While I look to the Newspaper of Record (I always thought it had to be initial caps) for coverage I can rely on, sometimes they come up short, and need to be called into account.

  2. Interesting that there is a Tacoda tag on that article.