I was interested by the title of a paper called “Behavioral Advertising: The Offer You Cannot Refuse” by a small coterie of privacy activist/researchers. I love the Godfather movies, in which the statement, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” is a coolly tuxedoed plan to threaten someone with violence or death. I don’t love the paper’s attempt to show that government “interventions” are superior to markets in terms of freedom.
Behavioral advertisers are no mafiosi. They are not in the business of illegal coercion. They’re not in any kind of illegal business, in fact. The choice of title suggests that the authors may be biased toward making targeted advertising illegal. (The lead author argued in 2004 that Gmail should be shut down as a violation of California law.)
What was most interesting, though, was the paper’s unspoken battle with lock-in, or path dependence. That’s the idea in technology development that a given state of affairs perpetuates itself due to the costs of changing course.
The QWERTY keyboard is a famous example of lock-in. The story with QWERTY is that keys on early mechanical typewriters were arranged so that commonly used letters wouldn’t strike one another and jam together. The result was an inefficient arrangement of keys for the fingers, but it’s an arrangement that has stuck.
The reason why it has stuck is because of switching costs. Everybody who knows how to type knows how to type on a QWERTY keyboard. If you wanted to change to a more efficient keyboard, you’d have to change every keyboard and everyone’s training. That’s a huge cost to pay in exchange for a modest increase in efficiency. So we’ve got QWERTY.
Since as close to the beginning as I know of, Web browsers have been designed to store information delivered by Web sites and to return it to those sites. Cookies are the best known form of this, tiny files that allow a Web site to recognize the browser (inferentially, the user) and deliver custom content. There are also “Flash cookies,” more accurately called “local shared objects,” which can store information about users’ preferences, such as volume settings for Internet videos. Flash cookies can also be used to store unique identifiers to use in tracking. These things provide value to Internet users, and most Web sites make use of them to deliver better content.
The authors of the paper don’t like that. The path of Web browsing technology is not privacy protective, and they would call on regulators to fix that with a pair of interventions: preventing Flash cookies from “respawning” cookies (that is, recreating them when they have been deleted) and regulation of consumer-data markets to prevent marketers from learning information about consumers. This would uphold consumer choice, they argue. And they argue dubiously that their work “inverts the assumption that privacy interventions are paternalistic while market approaches promote freedom.”
Now, ask yourself: If the government came in and required everyone to train for and use the more efficient Dvorak keyboard, would that be a paternalistic step? The end result would be more efficient typing.
Of course it would be paternalistic.
So let’s be frank. This is an argument for paternalistic intervention, attempting to allay the authors’ concern about what a favorite technology of Internet users is doing to privacy.
And it is the authors’ privacy concerns, not Internet users’ at large. Opinion surveys in the privacy area are notorious for revealing that consumers will state a preference for privacy no matter what their true interests are.
The good news is that there is far less lock-in in the Internet browser area than in keyboards. Technologists can and do build browser modifications that prevent tracking of the type this article is concerned with.
Their real problem is that few people actually care as much as the authors do about whether or not they receive tailored advertisements. Few people want to use a browser that is essentially crippled to gain a sliver of privacy protection to which they are indifferent.
Paternalist? It sure is. And unlike a paternally driven switch to a better keyboard, this policy wouldn’t obviously make consumers better off.