Somewhere around the time that Google launched its first ad-matching algorithm for Gmail, America and its policymakers became very concerned about privacy on the Internet. Never mind that Google was just using statistical relationships between words and phrases to match potentially relevant ads without any human ever looking over your emails– it was the creep factor that caught people’s attention, and that has stuck with us ever since.

In the time that’s passed, we’ve grown more worried over what Facebook and other social media services might do. Then, last summer, we were given reason to worry about what our own government had been doing with the data these companies gather.

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions about the changing nature of privacy, but the burden that is being put on digital advertisers and services seems very strange, from a historic perspective. There is far more reliable and intimate data about us stored by companies who provide it to anyone willing to pay for it. These databases have existed since before the web was a glint in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. They are direct marketing databases. As Jeff Jarvis put it in his book “Public Parts”:

Today, I can go to a database sold by Acxiom and buy a list of names and addresses of, say, single women in their thirties with high income who’ve finished high school within 1 mile of an address. Sound creepy? That has been happening long before the Internet. That is how junk mailers get your address. What’s the harm of online targeting by comparison? What’s the benefit? That is a calculation for us to make.

It’s facetious, of course, to ask why it is that this hasn’t become so central a topic among policymakers as online privacy. The obvious answer is that the creep factor in digital, and particularly digital advertising, is right in consumers’ faces. They talk to a friend about cars they’re thinking of buying, and suddenly they get ads for the makes and models they discussed. They change their relationship status on Facebook to “married” and nine months later they get pregnancy-related ads. Traditional marketing has never had a comparable context, except in junk mailers’ relentless ability to find you at your new address with uncanny speed.

A privacy expert in the digital advertising industry with whom I spoke also put forward the theory that consumers had a lot more time to get accustomed to the methods of traditional marketing, aside from the fact that much of the substance of those methods occurred out of sight. Traditional marketing developed slowly, over decades. Digital advertising has blown up, for consumers, in really less than one decade. Many of the things consumers found creepy about it developed within a span of five years.

The different reactions are therefore understandable. However, because the differences are not really matters of substance, policymakers should exercise caution before bringing heavy-handed regulation to bear. They ought to be asking themselves: if we do not think that traditional marketing requires this regulation, why should digital be treated differently?

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