In cyberspace, says Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, "zero privacy" is the norm. Twenty-five years after "1984", the English novelist George Orwell's vision of a state that watched everybody, the net is one sphere of human activity where Big Brother is really watching.
But it makes perfect marketing sense.
As an age of networked homes and e-commerce dawns, the temptation to look deeper into individual surfers of the net is just too high. Says a senior media planner with RightServe, "Advertising in traditional media is like throwing a dart. Once it leaves your hand, it is impossible to correct its course of action. Internet advertising, on the other hand, allows media planners to correct the advertisement mid-course. It thus makes a lot of sense to have precise information, and the more precise it is, the better."
As e-commerce emerges, advertisements have to be accurate, and as Pankaj Sethi, CEO, Media2India.net, puts it, "appear at precisely the same time when the consumer is looking for the product." For example, in a networked home, it makes superb marketing sense if the television blared advertisements for liquor at the precise moment that the wine in the refrigerator goes low. However, for this to be done, marketing and advertising companies need a lot of data — almost a precise profile of an online consumer — his taste in food, his consuming patterns etc.
And this is where the potential danger lies.
"The need to understand the behaviour of Internet users, the number of web sites, understanding the relative strength and weaknesses of products have spurred the need for better and in-depth Internet Research technologies," says Sethi.
Media2India recently launched WebGauge, India's first truly online research product. The product covers the profiles of visitors to a site, and, by asking them questions, finds out the perceptions of visitors to the site. At the same time, web publishers can get an in-depth understanding of the site visitor. Other companies like Intercept Consulting gather information on the net that is then used for targeted advertising. Servers at Intercept constantly monitor visitors to selected sites, and then the data is used to send targeted advertisements.
But why the hunger for data on consumer behaviour? Better data means better service, an experience that the Indian consumer, used as he is to rude salesmen and poor service, may be willing to trade for a bit of data.
Online advertising research in India has one advantage — it is not hampered by the privacy concerns that western media agencies are subjected to.
In the US, DoubleClick, the world's largest advertising-placement company had been compiling anonymous data on surfer habits by placing "cookies" - electronic footprints that allow websites and advertising agencies to monitor online movements with precision. As long as the data was anonymous, hardly anyone raised a cry. But, in November 1999, DoubleClick bought Abacus Direct, a database of names, addresses and information about the offline buying habits of 90 million households. DoubleClick then proceeded to compile profiles linking individual's actual names and addresses with their online and offline purchases. Privacy advocates went wild, and in March 2000, DoubleClick was forced to announce that it was postponing its project until the US government and the e-commerce industry agreed on privacy standards.
But then it also depends on how privacy is defined. In India, the concept is very different. Says Manosh Markos, general manager, TBWA Anthem Interactive, "In India, I don't think that you have any online privacy. Apart from credit card numbers, ask anything, and the surfer will give it to you. Society, in general, is not privacy concerned." Concurs Avinash Thakur, who is doing his masters in sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, "In India, questions that would make an European or American livid, are asked with monotonous regularity. Our definition of privacy is very different."
Such ideas notwithstanding, the issue is one that evokes concern.
For one, information that is collected online could fall into the wrong hands. Some analysts express fears that such data, which is given in good faith, can be used by government officials. Says a lawyer who specialises in Internet law, "India is a country where the IB officials routinely open letters. Under the guise of national security, many provisions of the law can be used to take over online data banks." Hackers too remain a constant threat.
For some, the issue is one of invasion of personal space. "What happened to DoubleClick could also happen here. If a company is going to use the data collected for one purpose to study my behaviour, connect to my individuality, and use that data for targeting their products, then I am going to protest. I don't think that the Indian surfer is any different when it comes to this," says Mohan Krishnan, research director, e-technology group@IMRB (Indian Market Research Bureau).
Another problem is the increasing unreliability of online data banks. The IMRB found that many surfers tended to lie about their status. IMRB, in a few of its online surveys, planted questions that could verify whether data being given online was true. The finding? Only in specialised fields, like auto-dealer sites, was information given with a certain amount of accuracy. Another report indicated that for online data, ironically, the people who said that they owned everything, from a credit card to a house, were the ones who were surfing in a cybercafe, and roughing it out in rented accommodation. On the other hand, really wealthy people were afraid of the data going into the hands of the Income Tax department, and often understated their income levels or assets.
Markos points out that the same happens with offline data such as market surveys. "I think that online or offline, if the gift that is being offered is worth it, then the data tends to be more reliable — at least the phone numbers and the addresses."
But then the question is whether anyone would like data collected from diverse sources to be put together to create a chilling accurate profile. It is a debate that will only sharpen as e-commerce becomes reality in India.
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