Losing Main Street.

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The consumer privacy series run by The Wall Street Journal last week is still pumping current into a third-rail social and political issue that will fry just about anyone who touches it.  Last week in this space I challenged both the motivation and wisdom of the starstruck industry execs who fed the story.  Now its time to look at the reaction from “our side,” both official and unofficial.  And I’m afraid it’s about as effective and authoritative as Deputy Barney Fife at his most menacing.

I love so much about what Randall Rothenberg and the Interactive Advertising Bureau have done recently, but his opinion piece in yesterday’s USA TODAY left a lot to be desired.  The IAB CEO sought to disarm the Journal’s wacky conspiracy theory by layering on one of his own.  According to Rothenberg, the whole controversy is driven by “activists who want to obstruct essential Internet technologies and return the U.S. to a world of limited consumer choice in news, entertainment, products and services.”   So if you’re concerned about being tracked with cookies and beacons you are the Taliban.  Nice.

Also in the response is a nod to the town-hall meeting in which we have a “real American” stand up to demonstrate the problem.  “Regulating (online ad technology tools) unwisely,” says Rothenberg,  “puts at risk people such as Tim Carter, a former Cincinnati home contractor who now makes a living with his ad-supported site AsktheBuilder.com, and James and Susan Martin, who work full time and care for their kids from their Montross, Va., home, thanks to their site, Ikeafans.com.”  So if you regulate online tracking Tim Carter goes back to hanging drywall and the poor Martin children become latchkey kids in a house full of elegantly simple Swedish furniture.

Finally Rothenberg leans on “the Dorothy principle.”  Like Glinda the good witch of the North, he tells consumers, “Why, you’ve had the power all along!”  You can go dump your cookies, shut them off and navigate the web without them.  As Randy knows and the consumer now believes thanks to the Journal, it’s a lot more complicated than that.  And a consumer who goes to the IAB website and sees names like Audience Science, Crowd Science, Data Xu, Exact Target and BackChannel Media isn’t going going to think it’s much of a fair fight.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written on this issue (see “The Vast Luddite Conspiracy Theory” from March 2nd) and it won’t be the last.  I agree with Randall Rothenberg and the IAB on many of the facts.  But the battlefield here is not about facts, it’s all about image, and on that front we’re getting our asses kicked.  Dismissing privacy advocates as marginal extremists is not a long term strategy.  (Today’s extremist issue is tomorrow’s dominant trend.)  I think a sustainable privacy strategy begins with acknowledgment of the problem that exists.   Facts is facts: the “Targetocracy” in our business is big, wildly overcapitalized and a little bit out of control.  What I think consumers want to hear from Randy and the IAB is “we take the issues raised by the Journal very seriously.  The issues and the technology are quite complicated, but we remain committed to rooting out the bad guys and maintaining an environment that’s rich, free and privacy focused.”

As one of the IAB’s earliest board members and one who’s contributed a great deal of time and effort toward its mission over the years, I believe it’s time for the group to act less like the Chamber of Commerce and more like the Internal Affairs Department.  There are both rogues and careless polluters in our industry and their actions poison the environment for everyone.   Not everyone wants regulation, but the consumer wants to know someone’s in charge.  Who’s that going to be?

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