Not All Cookies Are Created Equal -- Some Are Good for You

They Help Us Create More Relevant Ads, but We Can't Forget Privacy Worries

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Cookie Monster once said that "a cookie is a sometimes food." We might say the same about digital cookies. They are not always bad for you.

Not all advertising cookies are created equal. Track every site I visit as an identifiable individual? As a consumer I have a big issue with that . Run your ad campaign and calculate how many viewers in aggregate were exposed to it, including me? Not a problem.

Eager to protect online privacy, some are calling for the abolishment of cookies altogether. But we would do better to take a look at helping consumers make informed choices.

Here is one example, from Subaru, of how advertisers use cookies to create more relevant ads. I am considering buying the Outback and as I look at its page online, Subaru inserts related ads with product and financing options. Is this a nuisance or is it value added? In another example, do I prefer to see great deals on clothing for the opposite gender, which a cookie may release as I browse for a new shirt, or only for my own?

Advertisers understand that when they can connect ads in this way to the consumers' interests, response rates go up. These kinds of optimization are probably also a good thing for me as a consumer. But at the same time, I want to know who has this basic information about me, and whether I can choose to opt out. By giving consumers good answers to these points, we can achieve the right balance.

Protecting consumer privacy should be a main concern for all online players. Users should be able to tell with clearly marked notices that what they are seeing is an OBA (Online Behavioral Advertising) ad and within that ad, given the clear choice to opt out of the OBA tracking.

It is the media industry's responsibility to explain the targeting advantages that OBA presents to consumers. But in the end, it must be the user's choice. A clear distinction should be made between OBA and non-OBA advertising cookies.

Fortunately, the industry has put in place standards and programs to achieve this. Advertisers can now ask the right questions. Is our technology included in the Network Advertising Initiative for transparency -- making our practices visible to consumers, policymakers and privacy advocates? Do we include a simple tool that allows users to opt-out of receiving targeted ads from member ad networks? Do we honor browser functionality known as "do-not-track," which sends a signal with every online communication indicating a user's preference not to be tracked? This puts the onus on the tracking companies to comply with do-not-track mechanisms -- rather than on the user to discover and counter every type of possible online tracking.

Turning cookies into a monster that hurts our privacy is a simplification that does a disservice to consumer and publisher alike. Cookies are not necessarily good or bad, and the technology and media are fast evolving to address outstanding concerns.

Amit Rahav is senior vice president marketing, DG & VP Marketing, MediaMind.
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