Has DoubleClick Gone Far Enough?

When controversial Internet advertising firm DoubleClick, Inc. unveiled its online privacy initiatives Monday, the company immediately received a cynical reception from privacy advocates.

In a public statement, Junkbusters Corp. president Jason Catlett blasted DoubleClick’s self-policing actions by calling them “window dressing on their previous position, which is that they’re going to profile as much as they feel like unless people try to opt out.”

Catlett was referring to DoubleClick’s recent Web banner and newspaper ad campaign, which invited users to visit www.privacychoices.org, a site that the company has been touting as a resource for educating consumers about online privacy.

Additionally, consumers who visit the site can opt out of receiving DoubleClick cookies “with only two clicks,” according to DoubleClick officials.

Opt In, not Opt Out

Catlett and many other privacy advocates prefer to see legislation that would require consumers to explicitly “opt in” before companies like DoubleClick are allowed to track and record consumers’ online habits.

“Most people aren’t aware they are being tracked,” Catlett explained. “DoubleClick’s line that consumers should request an ‘opt-out cookie’ is like telling homeowners who don’t want salesmen entering their homes unannounced to hang out a ‘please do not disturb’ sign instead of locking their doors.”

Additional Steps

Meanwhile, in an attempt to convince the public that it is really serious about their privacy, DoubleClick also said it will only do business with Web sites that have “a clear and effective privacy policy on their sites.”

In a further effort to deflect the mounting public outcry against its policies, the company said it has retained PricewaterhouseCoopers to perform periodic privacy audits of DoubleClick. Additionally, the online advertiser is establishing a consumer-privacy advisory board that will include members who are consumer advocates and security experts.

The rollout of DoubleClick’s new privacy program comes only a week after privacy advocates asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the firm’s information and collection practices. The advocates allege that DoubleClick is guilty of using unfair and deceptive tactics to track online users’ activities and combine them with detailed personal profiles.

Responsible Action

Contrary to the position of the privacy groups, I think that DoubleClick has reacted to the privacy issue in a responsible and measured manner.

It seems that, to a great extent, privacy advocates will not be satisfied until all of us are forced to “opt in” before e-tailers are allowed to serve up products and services that are tailored to our individual interests.

Perhaps some privacy advocates are taking undue credit when they claim to speak for the majority of online consumers. According to DoubleClick President Kevin Ryan, only about 100,000 of the 80 million to 100 million Web users it reaches have decided to opt out.

So, by making it easy for consumers to opt out and by actively seeking their input, DoubleClick has shown me that it is, indeed, serious about being up front with consumers.

Hopefully, other companies will follow DoubleClick’s lead and quickly resolve this privacy issue, which places a handful of privacy advocates in the spotlight and gives them, arguably, far more attention than they deserve.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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