Blown To Bits

Advertising, opt-in, and opt-out

Thursday, July 17th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The more an advertiser knows about you, the better it can target ads at you. So there is enormous value in information about your Internet behavior. For a long time it wasn’t feasible to analyze every packet your Internet Service Provider delivered to you; there were too many and the analysis would slow them down. Moore’s law has solved that problem, and there are now boxes to do such “deep packet” inspection. A company called NebuAd is in the forefront, and when some ISPs announced that they were going to experiment with the product, privacy advocates got into the act. There were hearings today before the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, as reported by PC World.

Much of this report is centered on Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey’s pressing the question of whether such deep packet inspection should be the default, with consumers being given the option of not having their packets inspected and data collected about them. That would be an “opt-out” protocol. Markey, and privacy advocates, prefer an “opt-in” protocol, where consumers have to affirmatively state that they wish the data to be collected (which might be to their advantage; who wants to see irrelevant ads?).

NebuAd apparently claims that opt-in or opt-out isn’t as important as informing the public of what they are doing. In theory that might be right, but in practice it isn’t. Few people ever change the defaults on anything. There has been widespread discussion, in the US and the UK, of changing the default on cadaver organ donations from opt-in (stating at the time you get a driver’s license, for example, that you wish to be an organ donor) to opt-out (you’re a donor by default, unless, when given the information, you affirmatively declare you don’t want to be). An opt-out protocol would greatly increase participation in organ donor programs. And an opt-out protocol on NebuAd would result in vastly more useful data about consumer behavior.

As in the case of the draft Massachusetts legislation about web surfing privacy discussed here last week, we are facing a situation where technology is advancing faster than social practices. A lot more than advertising revenue is at stake here, since deep packet inspection is the very antithesis of the end-to-end philosophy on which the Internet was founded, and threatens net neutrality. (See page 313-315 of Blown to Bits. In today’s hearing, MIT professor Dave Reed “compared ISPs using NebuAd to a package delivery company looking inside every box it handles,” the same metaphor we use near the bottom of page 315.)

2 Responses to “Advertising, opt-in, and opt-out”

  1. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » “Opting-In” to Being Tracked Says:

    […] as we discussed earlier, extracts information from the individual data packets reaching you to help target advertising to […]

  2. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » ISPs Back Away From Packet Inspection Says:

    […] issues surrounding this practice have come up for congressional scrutiny; see previous blog posts here and […]