In many ways, the series of articles about online privacy that the Wall Street Journal began publishing last year has set the tone for the privacy debate nationally–but not everyone is thrilled about that.
During a discussion about personal information and privacy at the pii2011 conference, Evidon CEO Scott Meyer suggested that the tone of the WSJ series about digital privacy, called “What They Know,” was over the top and inflammatory. “When you use words like ‘surveillance’ and ‘spying,’ it freaks people out,” Meyer said to Julia Angwin, one of the WSJ reporters who has worked on the series. “If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t be here,” he said, referring to the panel of behavioral advertising companies that he was on, which Angwin was moderating.
A questioner from the audience, Morgan Reed of the Association for Competitive Technology, agreed, noting that the WSJ series had directly influenced the comments made by Congressional representatives. “The question addressed to me [by Congress] was, ‘Look at these apps the Wall Street Journal found — so you, app developer, tell us why we shouldn’t be afraid of these,” said Reed.
“What we’re doing is reporting the facts,” Angwin responded. “The fact is, we tested a bunch of apps, and this is the data they were sending,” she said. “And this is pretty revolutionary in the news business.” (Laughter in the audience.) “Most often, data written about in the newspaper is provided to them, as in, ‘a Brooking Institution report says this.’ We decided to test things ourselves. It was expensive, it was difficult. And it turns out, we now have the best data available about what apps are doing. It’s hard to replicate that study. You have to hack the phones, and measure the traffic.”
She continued: “There are some loaded words in those stories, I agree. But I also think that this is actually what is happening–you are being tracked,” she said. “How did this all get turned onto me?”
After some more chuckles from the audience, Reed suggested that Meyer should thank Angwin and the Journal for its focus on privacy, because it’s focused the attention of advertisers on the importance of doing better disclosure. “If it wasn’t for her you wouldn’t have a business right now.”
Everything above was said in a pretty friendly way. Still, the exchange was telling. It reflects the perception of advertisers and many online service providers that at this particular moment, the privacy debate has become very driven by media coverage, and by the WSJ in particular.
Evidon is in charge of implementing the self-regulatory policy that online ad companies are pursuing, and recently began showing icons to viewers that indicate the presence of behavioral ads. Users can click on those icons to learn more about ad targeting, or to opt-out if they choose.
During other parts of the discussion, Meyer talked about Evidon’s explosive recent growth. Evidon is currently serving 10 billion ad impressions per month, he said, and while that’s “a single digit percentage” of total behavioral ad impressions, it’s possible that Evidon could be having its icon appear in 50 percent or more of those ads within 6 to 12 months. “We will probably grow 100 percent month over month in May,” said Meyer. “That may seem like it’s not realistic, but that’s the way the internet scales.”