Tangled Webs

    You Are Being Watched
Issue 5.2
Mar 3, 2000

The New Meaning of Computer Monitor

From the very beginning, DoubleClick made a lot of people nervous. For those unfamiliar with the company, DoubleClick's DART system serves banner ads, and in the process builds up detailed profiles of exactly what web sites individuals visit and when they visit them. These profiles are then used to deliver more targeted advertising. What has thus far prevented this kind of user profiling from being a threat to privacy has been the fact that DoubleClick did not associate real-world names with their profiles.

It is hard to truly grasp how extensive DoubleClick's online reach has become. Their DART system now serves over 5 billion ads every week at almost 12,000 websites, and they have built up a database of over 100 million user profiles. To assuage public outcry, DoubleClick has always pointed to their strict policy against collecting "any personally identifiable information about you, such as your name, address, phone number, or email address."

Unassuaged outcry began last summer when DoubleClick announced that they intended to buy Abacus Direct. Abacus tracks the buying habits of consumers who purchase goods from any of over 1,100 mail-order catalog companies, and they have a database of over 2 billion consumer catalog transactions; each linked to a real name and address.

Although DoubleClick denied it at first, the intent was clear. DoubleClick's "firm" policies about consumer privacy were about to be thrown out the window. They would now be able to link their user profiles to real word names and addresses and build a cross-lined database of individual's buying habits and Internet activities.

Naturally, these developments worried a lot of people, but there was not much that could be done. Consumers asked the Fair Trade Commission to investigate, but the FTC claimed it had no jurisdiction in privacy matters. Letters were sent to socially conscious mutual finds asking that they divest, but DoubleClick's stock has been soaring. And just when privacy advocates thought things could not get any worse, DoubleClick announced that they will be releasing a spam tool called DARTmail. Now we will not only receive banner ads based on our profiles but unsolicited email as well.

It's for Our Own Good

DoubleClick spokesmen, of course, have been trying to convince us that they are doing us all a tremendous service by building detailed profiles of our online activities. And although they publicly and frequently voice their strong commitment to and deep concerns over consumer privacy, such claims should be viewed as the nonsense they are.

Perhaps DoubleClick management honestly believes that consumers have an overwhelming desire to see more advertising, but their attempts to trivialize the privacy issues concern me deeply. DoubleClick CEO Kevin O'Connor sums up the issue as "It's about delivering the right message to the right consumer at the right time." I don't think I could disagree more. The issues are not so superficial.

DoubleClick points to the fact that it allows individuals to "opt-out" of their system, but such protections are woefully inadequate. As I understand it, when an individual opts out, DoubleClick will refrain from sending ads, but may still track their purchasing habits and movements through cyberspace. Furthermore, the only way to prevent DoubleClick from building a purchasing profile on you will be to provide them with a fair amount of personal information. This is not privacy by any stretch of the imagination.

Warding Off Big Brother

All free societies grant their citizens a right to privacy, but we have yet to closely examine privacy rights in light of recent technological developments. It seems clear to me no company should have the right to compile and sell detailed profiles on individuals unless those individuals have given their consent to the enterprise. There is certainly a valid business use for the database the DoubleClick is building, and there are undoubtedly people who would not mind having their actions tracked in exchange for more targeted ads or other remuneration.

That being the case, all that is really needed is simple accountability and an acknowledgement that our personal information is our own. That it cannot be resold without our explicit consent. Companies selling consumer profile information should be able to demonstrate that such permission was obtained, and an audit trail would have to be maintained. Furthermore, if a company like DoubleClick is building a detailed profile on your activities, you need to have the right to see those profiles and to request that corrections be made.

Anytime you received unsolicited mailings or email you should have the right to demand to know how your name was obtained and provided with the audit trail back to where you had given permission for its use. Companies unable to provide such information or who are selling information without proper permission would be subject to reasonable fines.

Much of this is simple common sense, and most companies pay lip service to the idea of consumer privacy and are happy to state their commitment to it in temporary non-binding policies. As DoubleClick shows us, however, such policies will be abandoned as soon as technology allowing for more invasive, pervasive or comprehensive monitoring becomes available. In a free society, no one without either explicit permission or a proper warrant should be permitted to put an individual under this kind of surveillance.


After this story was written, DoubleClick bowed to consumer pressure and announced that they will not be correlating Internet activities and real world purchases at this time. There were the predictable statements about how consumer privacy is of paramount concern to DoubleClick, but in my opinion, they are simply biding there time. The databases will be correlated when DoubleClick deems the public is less sensitive. DoubleClick has invested a great deal in this and stands to lose out on far too much money if they keep the two databases independent.

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© Copyright 2000, Tim Romero, t3@t3.org
This article fist appeared in the February 28th edition of The Japan Times.
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