Defaults matter

Disclosure: Yieldex is not directly in the interest-based targeting business, although some of our customers are.  Nevertheless, the opinions below are my own, not my employer’s.

A very few people care a lot about online cookies, on both extremes: some our outraged and some think everything’s fine.  And an extremely large percentage of people don’t seem to care much one way or the other.  I don’t think anybody seriously argues with the idea of choice – if you want to make a choice about your privacy, you should be able to.  And I’d argue opting out of interest-based advertising has been made very easy – every major browser allows opt-out and/or has an incognito mode for anonymous browsing.  If you stipulate that the choice exists, then the debate becomes not about choice, but about defaults.

Defaults are really important.

Here’s a real life example from a study by Eric Johnson and Dan Goldstein: In Germany, citizens check a box to opt-in as an organ donor, but in Austria (a very similar country), they check a box to opt-out. The results? In Germany only 12% consent to organ donation, while in Austria nearly 99% do. Defaults in Austria are saving lives – that’s pretty important.

The default for the first 15 years of the Internet has been for browsers to accept third party cookies, which are often used for interest-based advertising.  Apple’s Safari browser was the first to alter that default, and now Microsoft is effectively changing it (by enabling Do Not Track) in Internet Explorer 10.  There is also legislation that has passed in the EU and pending in the US to restrict the use of cookies.  This means there is a very real possibility that the majority of browsers in use in a few years will have the default reversed.  This could have important repercussions, so let’s analyze the pros and cons of changing this default:

On the “change” side, no data can be collected.  A few people are happy, most don’t really care. Ads are less relevant, and less valuable to the advertiser.  Publishers make less money.  New legislation often has unforeseen and usually negative consequences.  And one more thing: we don’t actually know what the internet looks like without third party cookies, so we’re pretty much flying blind.

On the “leave it alone” side, non-personally-identifiable data is collected.  A few people are forced to click an extra time to opt-out.  Most people don’t really care.  Ads are more relevant. Publishers make more money. Does some of that money go into the pockets of corporate fat-cats who then buy yachts?  Yes.  But does the competitive market also provide incentive for reinvesting a good chuck of that money into more and better free content? You bet. This is not a zero-sum game. By the way, no new laws. And we already know it works.

So, let’s recap.

Incognito default:
  • Most people don’t care
  • Sites might require people to opt-in to get content
  • Less relevant ads
  • Less high-quality free content
  • Fewer yachts
  • More legislation, with possible negative consequences
Anonymous data default:
  • Most people don’t care
  • A few people have to click to opt-out
  • More relevant ads
  • More high-quality free content
  • More yachts
  • Less legislation
I believe that the potential downsides of changing these defaults far outweigh the potential danger of privacy violations. Don’t change the defaults.

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