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'Cookies' Could Be a Sweet Thing

The news that Verizon will pay a $1.35 million fine for tracking its mobile customers' Internet activity without their permission triggered a memory for me of a trip I made, back in 2008, to the Verizon Labs facility in Waltham, Mass. The purpose of the trip was for Verizon to show the assembled media and analysts some of its forward-looking work.

One of the more intriguing things that Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) demonstrated was the ability to discern the interests of its customers based on their web browsing and to use that information to better target the TV ads they viewed over FiOS TV. At the time, however, company officials were very careful to state that they had no immediate plans to create a product around this capability, given the potential privacy concerns.

Of course, that's almost exactly what Verizon Wireless was busted for doing -- using "supercookies" to track mobile Internet usage in order to better target web ads.

Here's the irony for me: Many of us on that Waltham tour, myself included, LOVED the idea that we would no longer have to suffer through ads for baby diapers, low-carb beers or luxury cars when none of those things were of interest. Even those of us -- again, myself included -- who were already becoming DVR-obsessed and therefore predisposed to skip ads altogether -- admitted there might be room for ad-viewing in our lives if the ads were actually relevant to OUR lives.

The key thing, of course, is transparency: Customers need to know what their network operators are doing. And that's what Verizon is being dinged for by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) : failing to let its customers know their activity was being tracked. Verizon says it has cleaned up its policies and its act in that regard.

In the eight years since that Verizon tech tour, I've stopped watching ads almost entirely, except when I'm watching live sports or news shows, and I sometimes manipulate my viewing to even eliminate those. And I'm hardly alone -- it's what people love about streaming video services such as Netflix and the convenience of their DVRs.

I have to wonder what would have happened -- or still could happen -- if there was a service that, with consumer permission, delivered content either free or at a lower cost, while targeting ads to a subscriber's preferences, based on their Internet browsing. Subscribers would have to have direct ability to edit their perceived preferences; otherwise they'd often be watching ads for the car they'd just purchased or the trip they'd just booked, as often happens today on the Internet.


Read more about OTT video strategies in the OTT segment of our video section
right here on Light Reading.

But the core technology is still interesting to me and I think it would be to many consumers. We're not afraid of sharing information and for most of us that includes our web browsing history, if there is benefit to us in the bargain and if transparency and privacy rules are carefully followed. Unfortunately, with every breach of trust such as Verizon's recent faux pas, there may be less consumer willingness to explore such options.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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mendyk 3/15/2016 | 3:10:16 PM
Re: Crumbs Right -- At this point, I'm not sure there's a way around this without violating our sacred right of privacy. So ads will continue to be targeted based primarily on site visits. That's still probably a more effective approach than mass-market advertising, though.
kq4ym 3/15/2016 | 2:52:05 PM
Re: Crumbs If one could truely tailor ads to their preferences that might be an acceptable trade off. I've noticed that it's not even close yet on that one. I keep thinking how stupid the marketing guys are to keep sending me ads for stuff I bought a week ago.
KBode 3/11/2016 | 2:44:38 PM
Re: Crumbs I don't think the majority of the public even understands what's happening, or what things like encryption or "opting out" even mean. I think most people really just enjoy the illusion of privacy and security, and companies love to capitalize on that.
mendyk 3/11/2016 | 12:13:08 PM
Re: Crumbs Exactly. It's hard to take concerns about privacy seriously when the majority of the population willingly carries around tracking devices.
KBode 3/11/2016 | 12:00:02 PM
Re: Crumbs Well hey, there's billions to be made totally disregarding user privacy and control. Every user that opts out or is properly educated as to what you're up to is another potential lost sale. Have to keep the kids in the dark and relatively oblivious if you want to succeed, don't ya know. :)
mendyk 3/11/2016 | 9:35:35 AM
Re: Crumbs  It's fun to watch hypocrites (in this case all the high-tech defenders of personal privacy) parse their belief system -- which partially explains the high ratings for the various political "debates" this season.
KBode 3/10/2016 | 7:38:57 PM
Re: Crumbs Some of the hysteria surrounding the FCC's new privacy rules this week is dramatically overboard. Being transparent, making sure you notify users of data breaches, and ensuring there are effective opt-out tools in place certainly doesn't strike me as "onerous regulations."
mendyk 3/9/2016 | 11:11:26 AM
Re: Crumbs There's a fine line between premium service and extortion.
KBode 3/9/2016 | 10:46:15 AM
Re: Crumbs And I find AT&T's approach -- where users actually have to pay a premium if they want privacy -- to be highly problematic. Hopefully won't become the norm in the space.
mendyk 3/9/2016 | 9:02:08 AM
Re: Crumbs Agreed -- most "discounts" are thinly disguised upsells. This is what passes for smart marketing.
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