AOL chief Tim Armstrong’s comments today on his company’s and its parent company Verizon’s web tracking practices sound defensive, and perhaps a little indifferent to consumer privacy concerns.
Earlier this week reports surfaced that AOL’s digital advertising targeting efforts would be assisted by data collected using persistent “supercookies” dropped in the browsers of Verizon users.
This means that AOL’s ad network, which runs ads on 40 percent of websites, will be able to combine its own consumer targeting data with data collected by Verizon from mobile device users. This can include “your gender, age range and interests,” as Ars Technica points out.
Armstrong repeatedly likened user data collection to crude oil. “Data is oil for the whole Internet economy,” he told Re/code’s Kara Swisher at the Code Mobile conference in Half Moon Bay, California on Thursday.
Does Armstrong understand that this is not a flattering comparison for data collection? Oil is a dirty and environmentally unfriendly fuel source. It’s also a dwindling resource that’s very likely to cause more geopolitical clashes (read: wars) in the future.
Did Armstrong mean to call consumer data collection the necessary evil that finances the free web?
I doubt it. Like all digital advertising guys, Armstrong is quick to point out that there’s an upside to browser tracking for consumers. “Think of some of the huge benefits you get today from the data that’s on your smartphone,” he said. For example, publishers use tracking data to serve users more relevant content, including ads.
Armstrong also repeatedly defended his own company’s data tracking habits by pointing out that Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Google are more aggressive about data collection.
“Don’t kid yourself that there are not app makers that are trying to integrate with all the other apps on your phone and pull all the data from those apps,” he said.
“It’s about consumer choice and trust,” Armstrong said. “Whether it’s Verizon or AT&T or the [Silicon Valley companies], as a consumer you’re going to have to make a decision about whether you want to trust these companies with your personal data.”
“I will use it responsibly,” Armstrong said.
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