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Privacy, Smivacy. Tracking is not a problem

Written by on August 4, 2011

If there is ever a reason for publishers to get together to stand their ground, now is a good time. There is a problem with privacy in the world.

The problem is not the cookies or the tracking that takes place. The problem is the clueless politicians imposing laws and regulations to prevent publishers from knowing who their readers are. And the problem is the privacy hooligans--sorry, the privacy advocates--who lobby for a private internet.

In Europe, there is already a law in place requiring publishers to ask their reader if they can set a cookie. An article from Techcrunch explained it well when they said: "Want a 90% drop in your site visitors? Yes folks, you too can implement EU cookie law!"

U.S. lawmakers are not far behind. They too are trying to impose the same cookies blocking madness. Yesterday, GigaOm was made of part of a class action law-suit (among a large number of other publishers and web shops) because they are using KissMetric for analytics.

The entire privacy debate is out of control and will cause publishers to have no idea what to focus on.

A simple example. Looking at the most popular articles, in terms of clicks, has no relation actual value. Value is the result knowing how many people come back to the site to read the articles. And how many repeat-readers an article has.

Without tracking, all you have are the meaningless clicks. The most popular article on Baekdal this week is one about a Macbook concept with 3 screens (published in 2008.) It suddenly grew in popularity on Twitter and the social effect kicked in.

But not a single person reading that article is going to turn into a Baekdal Plus subscriber. It is a one time "Oh look at that" sensation. It provides a lot of traffic but no monetary value.

In Google Analytics I have created a custom report that tells me the percentage of returning visitors for each article. And 24% of the traffic to the MacBook article are returning visitors. In comparison, 89% of the traffic for "Social Impact, Iceland Bigger Than Global" are returning visitors.

The Macbook story generated more clicks but no subscribers, the Social Impact story generated fewer clicks, but is far more likely to convince people to subscribe.

Without tracking I would not know this. I would be blind to what my readers really like and just chase the clicks.

Tracking is not a privacy issue!

Just think what would happen if these privacy laws were also applied to real-life businesses--like a local clothing stores. It would be a disaster.

The sales assistants would be required to wear blindfolds and noise canceling headphones while their customers are rummaging around in the store. They would not be allowed to see the reaction on people's faces as they looked at each product.

When the customer finally asks for help, the sales assistant would first have to ask for permission to remove the blindfold. People would have the choice to ignore this request or simple say no. How are you supposed to help someone if you are not allowed to see them?

That is the world we now have online in Europe.

Tracking is not a privacy issue.

We expect and demand to be tracked. If you walk into a physical store you expect that the sales people pay attention to you. You expect that they notice what kind of products you like. You expect them to look at you and remember your reaction to specific products. You expect them to remember you if you have been there before.

In the physical world you demand to be tracked. When I visit my local Ford dealership I expect that they remember that I drive a Ford Focus. Same with the bank. You demand that the bank assistant remember who you are, your financial history etc. You demand that your hairdresser remembers what kind of style you like.

You demand to be tracked in real life.

But in the online world, the privacy hooligans have created this culture in which people think that tracking is a bad thing. It is not. Tracking is about creating customer satisfaction and optimizing what you have to offer. It is about creating value and relevancy.

There is also a privacy problem

I'm not saying that there isn't a privacy problem online, there is! Take the real-life shop analogy from before.

Imagine if I bought a pair of jeans and the sales assistant tweeted:

Thomas @Baekdal just bought a pair of jeans, and they were one size larger than his previous ones.

That is a violation of my privacy. He is not allowed to share what I bought. He is not even allowed to reveal that I visited the store.

Sadly, we see a lot of this online. Companies are sharing something about you. It is a problem that is growing with many social services that use sharing to boost their social engagement. It is a problem when companies share (or sells) the tracked data.

I wrote an article about this called, "The First Rule of Privacy." The first (and only) rule of privacy is very simple. It goes like this:

I am the only one who can decide what I want to share!

Nobody else can decide to share something about me without my consent. And you get to say the same thing:

You are the only one who can decide what you want to share!

I cannot decide what you should share, just as you cannot decide what I should share.

Your privacy is being violated when other people decide to share what they know about you. It is not a privacy issue that people know something about you to begin with. Everyone knows something. If you walk by a girl in the street you know what clothes she is wearing. That is not a privacy problem. That is living a life surrounded by other people.

Tracking is not the problem. The problem is that some people share the data without your consent. Tracking, in itself, is an essential tool that we as publishers can use to create a better and more valuable product--which, in turn, provides you with a better experience.

But the privacy hooligans--and the clueless politicians--are confusing the two. And the result is disastrous for publishers.

It is time to take a stand. We need to fight the privacy hooligans. But we need to do it in two ways.

  1. We need to uphold the principles of the first rule of privacy. Never share what your readers do without their consent--or without them initiating the action.
  2. Fight the privacy hooligans and reverse the negative no-tracking culture.

Tracking is not a privacy problem. Sharing personal information is. It is two completely different things.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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