Monday’s Wall Street Journal article on cookie tracking was a bit underwhelming. So although (a) we’ve been having the same conversation over and over again since 1996 without getting anywhere*, (b) the article was a bit misleading and maddeningly vague, and (c) industry rumor has it that the church/state divide at the Journal does not quite live up to the J-school ideal, I am siding with Jeff Jarvis in believing that News Corp is not well enough organized to stage a conspiracy: the article was just poorly done.
These arguments are nominally about privacy. And providing privacy is a worthy but complicated** goal. But given the general level of philosophical confusion about privacy, I believe much of the commentary (and the comments to the commentary) is motivated by a hostility to advertising in general.
If you hate advertising, you hate advertising. Arguing that not paying for music means a diminished supply of quality music does not sway the downloader. Not paying for media–in whatever sense of pay–means a diminished supply of quality media. This argument does not sway the hater of advertising, but I’m not trying to convince them. Advertising provides something important: free (as in beer) media. This may not mean much to Rupert Murdoch–who can afford to pay cash for his media–but it means something to society. And it should mean something to those of us who are trying to find a way to make quality ad-supported online media a viable proposition.
Paying cash for media is regressive. High cover prices exclude those with less disposable income. (This strategy is used purposefully by mixed-model high-end media outlets to produce a demographic appealling to better-paying advertisers.) Advertising democratizes media***. And media allows a democracy.
Online media is suffering. Susan Athey and Joshua Gans say “the adoption of targeting… leads to higher impression prices, higher profits, and higher social welfare.” Online media is in dire need of profits, much less higher profits. The alternative to targeting is the pay-wall. The FTC, in thinking about targeting, needs to seriously weigh the regressive impact of limiting advertising against the opinion of news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, who have consciously set out to exclude those who don’t have a spare $363 per year to spend on something they can get elsewhere for the nuisance cost of seeing a few ads.
* i.e., The Financial Times, February 12, 1996, “This Bug in Your PC is a Smart Cookie”; and San Jose Mercury News, February 13, 1996, “Web ‘Cookies’ May be Spying on You.”
** If you can quickly and simply articulate what privacy is and why it is important, I will quickly and simply point you to a counter-example. Privacy is not a single thing, it seems more like a bundle of things, so it defies easy analysis.
*** A fact evidenced by laws compelling certain content to be aired “free.” This content, naturally, is usually sporting events, but that’s a rant of a different color. Hansen & Kyhl “Pay-per-view broadcasting of outstanding events: consequences of a ban” talks about the EU directive of 1989.