Is Gen X Hooked on Cookies?

A recent poll by the Pew Internet and American Life project showed that younger Internet users are less likely to think “cookies,” the electronic tracking devices that marketers use to follow the movements of Internet users, intrude on their personal privacy.

In fact, the study said, 36 percent of Web surfers under the age of 29 feel electronic tracking actually improves their online experience. I had to read that part again. Being spied on is good for you. Dude, what is up with that?

The Seinfeld Generation

I have always thought of Generation X as a cynical and world-weary lot. They are supposed to be the generation of irony — not naivete. Are these the same young people who are finally wising up to Big Tobacco? They couldn’t be. The Pew study must have sampled from Generation Gullible.

Or could it be that Generation X has been incorrectly characterized right from the start? Maybe they are wide-eyed and wet behind the ears. Maybe they do believe everything they hear. Maybe they did just fall off the turnip truck.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just a different world — one where personal privacy is not only de-valued and unappreciated, but held up as something to be publicly ridiculed. Jerry Seinfeld’s world.

‘Cookies’ Mean Labels

In an ideal world, online tracking would improve a user’s Internet experience. Companies would gather information anonymously and use it to target personal preferences. “Hi, sir or madam, I see you’re interested in health and finance. Would you like to see our consumer guide to licensed and reputable health and investment sites?”

In our less-than-ideal, overly cynical world, the reality is: “Note to credit and insurance companies: We have compiled a list of sniveling, low income credit risks with recurring coughs, who should not be given loans, charge cards or health insurance unless at extremely high rates. This list is available for purchase so please have your credit card number handy.”

Ploy of Self-Regulation

These are the same companies that are determined to escape governmental oversight by throwing up the old ploy of self-regulation. Imagine my guffaw when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Commerce endorsed an industry self-regulation plan by the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI).

One of the stalwart “volunteers” looking after our interests is DoubleClick, currently under investigation by the FTC and the state of Michigan for tracking millions of anonymous spending habits and linking that data — without proper disclosure — to consumers’ personal information.

‘Slamming’ Continues

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the NAI, the Internet Advertising Bureau or the Privacy Partnership 2000. Industry self-regulation seldom works.

Privacy advocacy groups rightly objected to the NAI, saying that it not only fails in its stated goal of protecting online consumer privacy, but also encourages the invasive collection of personal information.

The lone commissioner who voted against it pointed out how self-regulation failed in the telecommunication industry, where some long-distance carriers continue “slamming,” that is, switching carriers without consumer approval.

Fox Guarding the Henhouse

Under the agreement, the advertisers say they will display “prominent notices” on their sites indicating how and when they are collecting data. The devil is in the details and the small print. Who defines “prominent notices”?

Also, advertisers agree that consumers will have the right to “opt out” of being snooped on. How much do you want to bet “opting out” will involve such long and complicated procedures that few users will bother?

Consumers will be given “reasonable access” to personally identifiable information. That could mean anything from jumping through hoops to “You can’t get there from here.” Not only is the fox guarding the henhouse, he’s doing it from inside, and he’s laughing at the dumb farmer.

All Hope Gone?

Personally, “cookies” don’t bother me because I have already accepted the fact that any information worth knowing about me has long been out there for any marketer, advertiser or snake oil salesman to use and abuse. I know I’m no match for the more cunning and unsavory marketers.

I guess I just hoped that the tech-savvy, Seinfeld-cynical batch of Gen X’ers coming up could give them a run for their money.

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