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Online privacy and building reputations: Q&A with Professor Turow of UPenn

Joseph Turow, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in online privacy, thinks Internet users are woefully unaware of what information is being collected about them and how marketers are using that data.

Worse, Turow told Senate lawmakers in a hearing on Tuesday, those advertisers and Web sites may be wrong in their assumptions about users. The consequences go beyond poorly placed ADS, he said. Our reputations are at stake, and users don't have enough say to control how we're being viewed online, he said.

I spoke briefly to Turow after his Senate Commerce Committee testimony in a hearing on consumer online privacy. We talked about what role the federal government could have in establishing rules for online data collection and use. And he discussed ways in which advertisers could offer voluntary solutions to avoid regulations.

Here’s an edited version our conversation:

Q: You said in the hearing yesterday, that dashboards on user data and more options for privacy settings are a smokescreen. You said they don’t really tell users how their information is being tracked. Explain.

A: In an ideal world, I think dashboards [Web applications that allow users to track how their data are being used and collected] are a good idea. The problem is that companies that use these, like Google, don’t really give you a whole lot of information. Sometimes it comes out like a marketing activity. Instead of saying, "Here is what we know about you and here is how you can shut this and that off," they only give partial information of what advertisers get.

Q: Are you saying companies like Google, AT&T and Facebook are creating more sophisticated profiles of you based on your activity online?

A: Google will let advertisers know your age and gender. Google will allow marketers to remarket to you – so that if a marketer has an experience with you in past and has a cookie about you, the marketer can follow you on Google’s display network and follow you. And the marketer brings a whole lot of data to that activity that has to do with interest categories for example. So it’s a continual iteration of categories about people and marketers that they can bring to Google’s display network.

Q: Aside from whether you like being tracked or not, how do you know they are getting it right?

A: They don’t, and that’s a problem. I was looking at my set of Google categories, which implied I like basketball. I don’t, but I was looking up information about basketball. I don’t have an intrinsic problem with targeting per se, but my biggest concern is that this is going on behind the scenes and people don’t have a clue as to the consequences. Marketing-driven reputations are being created, which affects the ads we see and the news and information we get.

Q: Okay, but why does that matter? So someone thinks I may like a weight loss drink when I don’t or that I may want to buy a book I don’t. What’s the damage?

A: That’s low-hanging fruit. This could affect your down line with the kind of employment you get or financial offerings you get. We are moving into era where people will be given a reputation that affects the media world they enter. We will have intelligent navigators that confront us when we turn our televisions on. They present the kinds of agendas you see about entertainment and how a cable company thinks about you based on the way Google and others define you.

Q: And what are those consequences? I kind of like the idea of someone pushing shows that they think I would like. That saves me some time.

A: It has implications of people being treated differently status-wise. So, issues of finance and health and employment are top of mind on these things. But I’m trying to suggest that there’s more to it than that.

For example, supermarkets have tremendous amount of information about us, and for decades they sat on data without a whole lot to say about it. But their margins are so low and competition is so high, they are now beginning to know it’s a gold mine. They now can use video carts and computers in stores to speak directly to you as you walk down the aisle. You will have a different experience than someone else. And you may be pushed to a higher-end grocery item than someone else. There’s price discrimination and other consequences.

Q: What should Web sites be doing to let users know about the data collected on them?

A: Web sites should reveal what categories they use about you and what categories they allow other parties to use about you. Cookie matching and the exchange of data should be revealed. [Some companies] have cookies, and they match that data with other cookies. They then trade that data on exchanges. And, more and more, this stuff is being done in nanoseconds.

Q: Any practical solutions to making this transparent?

A: I had a suggestion about an icon that would show up when an ad is being served up to you that you could click on to see all the characteristics that led marketers to come to that moment.

Q: What other suggestions have you made?

A: I’m beginning to believe we need ground-level regulation lessen the size of people’s reputations. There should be a discussion about how many data points can be collected. Should they know your gender or race or income or how much you spent on a house? Can you have hundreds of these data points or less?

Q: Could the industry come up with promises to be more transparent about how they use consumer data? They argue that regulations could really stifle their businesses.

A: Efforts for self-regulation could be great, and if they give certain information, that’s terrific. I’m worried that people have the sense that things are fine when they are not necessarily fine. It is true that data now are being collected with abandon. We are in situation where data are the dominant point of exchange.

By Cecilia Kang  |  July 28, 2010; 2:11 PM ET
Categories:  AT&T , Apple , Consumers , FCC , FTC , Facebook , Google , Privacy  
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