Apple and Google Won’t Save Online Privacy. Take It From a Former DoubleClick Executive.
An industry veteran on why recent moves from the tech giants should be the impetus for a federal privacy law
Jules Polonetsky remembers the moment that shattered his naivete about the internet.
“I was the consumer affairs commissioner for New York City 20 years ago when some company I’d never heard of came in with a big billboard,” he recalls. “It said, ‘Welcome to Silicon Alley,’ sponsored by DoubleClick.” I’d read in the headlines that DoubleClick was in trouble for using something called cookies. And something to do with “appending your identity” to your web-browsing history.
DoubleClick was a pioneer in targeted advertising: It used cookies to track people around the web for the benefit of advertisers across its vast network, a now-ubiquitous model that was cutting-edge at the time. And it had stirred one of the first big online privacy scares when it announced a merger with Abacus Direct, a major broker of data on consumers’ offline purchasing habits.
Until then, in Polonetsky’s mind, “We all thought we were anonymous on the internet. No one knew we were dogs.”
Two decades later, DoubleClick-style tracking may finally be on its way out, thanks to privacy-conscious moves from Apple, Google, and others. (I wrote on Saturday about Google’s pivot toward what it calls a “privacy-first web.”) But revisiting its rise, and how it overcame early privacy fears to dominate the modern web, holds lessons for what comes next.
DoubleClick’s noisy arrival on the consumer protection scene left Polonetsky confused, concerned — and intrigued. He went on to become DoubleClick’s first chief privacy officer — the company hired him away from his consumer affairs job, in part, to address the backlash to its planned merger. In 2004, he stepped into a similar role at AOL, and finally became CEO of the nonprofit Future of Privacy Forum when it was founded in 2008, a position he has held ever since. DoubleClick, for its part, was acquired by Google in 2007 for $3.1 billion and became the backbone of Google’s massive display advertising business while allowing the company to track users all over the web.