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Release 0.9: Cookie Crumble Contest

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This post will be the first of several on the topic of cookies, behavioral targeting, spyware and disclosure statements. In fact, it's the second; here's the first.

I have long been fretting about users and their control of their own data. They are paranoid about their own privacy (especially if you ask them in a survey: "Are you concerned about the privacy of your data?"). But generally they are careless with their data, they ignore disclosure statements, and they don't really understand how cookies and other tracking technologies work.

Meanwhile, several companies I'm involved with use these technologies and do the right thing with disclosure statements and the like. See the end of this post for a full list. They are all law-abiding, honorable companies, yet their disclosure statements are generally as cryptic as anyone else's, full of upper-case text, vague references to third-party marketing partners and the like. But when I discuss these issues, I get the feeling that I am being unrealistic and naïve. Users aren't interested in this stuff; disclosure statements slow down the buying process, etc. etc. And besides, goes the killer argument, we're just doing what the competition does.

And unfortunately the competition isn't that interested in an industry-wide education campaign either...

So, I'm taking matters into my own hands. The Federal Trade Commission happens to be holding a Town Hall meetingon behavioral targeting November 1 and 2 in Washington, and I have asked for dibs on a 90-minute slot for an "Explain the cookies" video contest for videos solicited on YouTube. The videos will foster effective user education -- both through the contest itself, and in the generation of content that could spread knowledge and awareness.

Supporters so far include a number of individuals (whom I'm checking with before outing them on this blog) and also Harvard's Berkman Center, which will take care of the logistics and the preliminary screening.

I may already have proved with this long preamble that I don't know how to market, but...

Here's the pitch:

Post a video that accurately explains how cookies work. Videos will be selected according to number of views; we will plan to screen the top 200 or so to find about 100 that qualify on the basis of accuracy and quality.

The story line (some or all should be included):

- How cookies work (text snippets stored in the user's browser, which are placed by a server (an ad server or the visited website's server) and then submitted to the server when the user revisits the cookie-placing server or ad network.
- Website cookies vs. ad network or third-party or tracking cookies
- What data cookies contain in their pure form
- How other data can be *associated* with anonymous cookie data
- How to delete cookies
- What cookies are used for: ease of sign-in, targeting ads, ad frequency capping, monitoring various kinds of user behavior (individually or in the aggregate)
- How cookies can be misused

Contestants are invited to post their videos on YouTube and to use whatever (honest, disclosed) means they want to get viewers. Presumably, good videos will be better able to attract support, viral marketing, etc. etc.

Bitter cookies

Of course, at least some of the videos are likely to be the equivalent of hate mail, and the best of those should be quite popular. I expect to see videos not just of cookie monsters, but also cookie spies, evil marketers and corrupt spyware companies.

Indeed, the purpose of this exercise is to provoke discussion, not simply to jam cheerful "knowledge" down people's throats. Personally, I would hope to have at least one or two of the "what can go wrong?" videos among the top five.

We certainly want people to understand what they should be afraid of as well as how cookies work when used appropriately.

Selecting a good panel of judges -- trustworthy, articulate, diverse -- will be key. They should reflect a range of viewpoints and of technical vs. social/business background.

Of course it's risky to do all this in real time, but it's also the only way to do it. This is the FTC's chance, and the sponsors' chance, to show that we get it.

The logistics:

We -- the sponsors, see below; you're invited too -- will reach out to everyone we can think of/have access to, to encourage people to post or at least watch videos on that channel. Some of the sponsors already have quite a broad reach; let's give them something interesting to promote!

After users have voted and Berkman has done the screening, the judges will assess the top 20 most-watched videos in late October, and develop a short list of five videos. The creators of those five will be hosted in Washington by the sponsors (probably our major out-of-pocket expense). Of course, anyone is welcome to attend this public meeting, and it will also be webcast live (and perhaps on C-SPAN?).

If the FTC agrees, those five videos will be shown at the FTC Town Hall (25 minutes), and attendees will be invited to vote by (unscientific) raising of hands. The judges will discuss the videos in a panel format for half an hour, followed by Q&A and perhaps some discussion with the creators. Then they will vote on the top three.

The prize will be whatever the sponsors can raise, plus of course great visibility and distribution, and who knows? perhaps a job offer or two.

This is still mostly a work in progress. With luck, it will have a Berkman-hosted website of its own in a week or two, with a public list of sponsors and other info. My goal is to get formal support from all the companies I am associated with, plus Google, YouTube, MySpace, AOL/Tacoda, Yahoo!/Blue Lithium, Revenue Science, Truste and AttentionTrust.

Sponsors/volunteers/critics of any kind -- please do write to me at or post your comments on this blog or on the contest page.

(Disclosure: The relevant companies I'm involved with include several in the advertising business per so: WPP Group, investor and director; Dotomi and Zedo, investor. I'm also an investor /director in/of a number of online services/websites that track their users and use advertising as a source of revenue: notably, Yandex, CV-Online and Vizu (investor only), and to some extent Meetup. I'm also an investor in and director of Boxbe, which is an e-mail service closer to the spirit of this post: It lets users declare their own profiles and put their own price on their inboxes.)

Next post -- the ultimate personalized disclosure statement