There has been a lot of noise recently surrounding the new legislation on online tracking and the use of cookies and permission. Marketers must sit up and listen to the potential underlying threat this legislation can pose and consider whether a new approach to transparency and education can head off the threat now and in the future. 

It seems most of the controversy is based on the typical ambiguity that seems to exist in many online rules and regulations. Because, let’s face it, the situation is meant to be led by public opinion, with the legislators supposedly following suit. The public want to be “protected” from evil online marketing spies, who are poised and ready to sell something at the first sign of interest.

Or do they?

The study last year commissioned by the Universities of Pennsylvania and California seemed pretty damming for the US attitudes to behavioural marketing, with 66% of respondents thinking tailored ads were “not ok”. When told how tailored ads were achieved, even more objected!

I’m wondering how many would have put their hands up in support of non targeted, irrelevant and intrusive marketing, “Hell yes, give me some of that!”

Seriously though, this would suggest that people don’t want targeted advertising, which is interesting, as anyone in the direct marketing business knows, it’s very effective! So could this be another instance of looking at what people do, not what they say. I’m sure Amazon improves their customer experience by adding “those who brought this, also bought…” and I bet plenty of people click on the links too.

So, what does this mean to the marketer?

Are legislators going to force people to opt in to cookie tracking before they can use a website? I don’t think so; the European Parliament has already debated the subject and it seems that it “doesn’t” require “prior” consent (based on advisory documentation released at the time). But this obviously doesn’t suit the privacy evangelists, who are still desperately snapping at the heels of the behavioural marketing industry, in the name of consumer interest (they say).

However, the fun comes when you consider that local member states still have to implement this directive by May 2011; and although the IAB stated when the directive was released that an opt in prior to tracking was not required, it’s still not cast in stone.

On the face of it, the UK marketing industry might have dodged a bullet this time, but it will still be easy for legislation to be interpreted another way, if there is enough public outcry to justify it. So we can’t rest on our laurels. Action needs to be taken now to head off any need for far more restrictive legislation in the future.         

The favoured view seems to be one of “prior consent” being the action of enabling (or not disabling) cookie tracking in your browser. For people who are concerned about cookies this means web browsers that are easily user configurable give you privacy options you can set BEFORE you go browsing; so when you enter a website you already have YOUR chosen privacy settings in place. And after all people visit websites because they choose to, not because they are being forced by the marketer.  

Data protection and privacy are an important part of the development of the internet, which relies on mutually beneficial collaboration. Consumers should be confident to share data, and it should be seen as vital that consumers are educated to the benefits of behavioural tracking. Companies should be as transparent as possible about the data they collect, and the use to which they put it. It can’t be left to the privacy evangelists to educate the consumer in how behavioural marketing works.

The internet is fast, it’s convenient, it can be intuitive; buts to be all these things it also needs to be an information exchange, with transparent data and tracking policies. We must ensure internet users are sufficiently educated, to be confident to share the data that is required. This will not only power the way the internet works now, but also to fuel its development in the future.