Stanford’s Jonathan Mayer On Fixing Privacy

Jonathan Mayer is the grad student whose research on internet tracking set off an explosive series of media reports and a flurry of privacy demands in Washington. But what does Mayer himself think should be done — is it possible to regulate privacy without harming Silicon Valley?

I spoke to him this week about the privacy problem and how to fix it. Here are some of his ideas:

The Companies Can’t be Trusted to Regulate Themselves

The tech and advertising industries have been aggressive in promoting their own version of do-not-track rules. According to Mayer, the system of self-regulation has so far been a “dismal failure” and that “leaving it to Silicon Valley to solve the problem won’t cut it.”

Mayer says that the culture of technology companies, especially their focus on growth, makes them ill-suited to safeguard consumer privacy. He is also skeptical about companies’ ability to collect data without identifying specific individuals: “The whole ‘it’s all anonymous’ line is just untrue.”

Yes, the Government is up to the job

A late Senator’s muttering that the internet is a “series of tubes” symbolizes for many the government’s inability to understand, let alone regulate, new forms of technology. Critics fear ham-handed government intrusion will kill off the next Google (NSDQ: GOOG) or Facebook. Mayer believes this caricature is overblown.

“It’s not as if Congress hasn’t regulated intensely technical areas before,” he said, in reference to agencies like the FAA and NASA (the nuclear industry would presumably count as well).

Mayer thinks that increased government oversight in the privacy sphere would be effective so long as the mandate was given to an independent agency and not Congress itself.

Ad Companies are Overstating the Importance of Behavioral Advertising

Behavioral advertising is based on the infamous tracking cookies that vacuum up users’ activities as they move around the internet. Advertisers say this information lets them serve relevant ads that in turn pay for all the web services that users now enjoy for free. Eliminating behavioral advertising might cause innovation to shrivel.

Mayer dismisses such claims as a scare tactic. He says a colleague’s research shows that the relative proportion of online ad revenue derived from behavioral advertising is insignificant. This means that interent companies would still flourish even if they relied only on traditional ad categories like contextual advertising (ie placing a corkscrew ad on a wine website).

Europe Doesn’t Get it Right Either

Privacy activists sometimes point to Europe’s tough personal data rules as a model for the United States. Mayer disagrees, saying many of the continent’s proposals are knee-jerk and focus excessively on cookies. He adds that some would be ineffective or impossible.

“Technologically, many of the ideas are kind of crazypants.”

We Can’t Say For Sure ‘What They Know’

The Wall Street Journal’s initial series about Mayer’s research was titled “What They Know.” But it turns out that even Mayer can’t say just how much information internet companies are keeping or who is doing the best job of protecting it.

“It’s very hard to compare the big players as there’s not a lot of transparency.”