On the Internet, Everyone Knows If You’re A Big Dog, Or Just A Dog

A Wall Street Journal story today has everyone talking about how Internet sites use profiles and cookies to offer different customers different offers, or the same product for different prices. On the Internet today, everybody knows whether you're a big dog, or just a dog.

In 1993, Peter Steiner published his famous New Yorker cartoon of two dogs chatting in front of a computer as one posted something to some pre-social networking chat room and said: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today, they know whether you’re a big dog, or just a dog, or for that matter, your entire pedigree, and they are using it to determine what kinds of content and what kinds of offers to serve to you at what price.

In his new book, The Daily You, University of Pennsylvania Professor Joe Turow explains that: “Marketers are increasingly using databases to determine whether to consider particular Americans to be targets or waste.[…] The targets receive different messages and possibly discounts depending on those profiles.” Here’s a short interview with Professor Turow on NPR’s Fresh Air.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, reporter Dana Mattioli writes thatOn Orbitz, Mac Users Steered to Pricier Hotels.” From the story:

“The Orbitz effort, which is in its early stages, demonstrates how tracking people’s online activities can use even seemingly innocuous information—in this case, the fact that customers are visiting Orbitz.com from a Mac—to start predicting their tastes and spending habits.”

Orbitz is pushing back hard on the idea that it is using price discrimination techniques or “dynamic pricing” to steer Mac users to higher-priced hotels than Windows users are offered. It claims in this ABC News followup that:

“[T]he notion that the company would charge more for the same hotel based on a computer model is “nonsense.” […] “Just as Mac users are willing to pay more for higher-end computers, at Orbitz we’ve seen that Mac users are 40 percent more likely to book four- or five-star hotels … compared to PC users, and that’s just one of many factors that determine which hotels to recommend a given customer as part of our efforts to show customers the most relevant hotels possible.”

In my view, Turow is right and the Orbitz flack is spinning. It’s nonsense to think that companies are not trying to predict which consumers to charge more or offer different choices to. If companies are using profiles, secret databases and vast troves of information from numerous sources — almost the least of which is your Mac or Windows IP address — to make decisions about what products to offer you at what prices, then you should have more rights to know about, look at and control the sale and sharing of information and profiles that make you a “target or waste” or a big dog or just a dog. Some of those rights, including a full “do not track or collect my information” right (as opposed to a limted “do not target me” right), are discussed in this new FTC privacy report. As I explain in a recent blog, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy and I will have more discussion of these issues in a forthcoming paper.


Ed Mierzwinski

Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program, PIRG

Ed oversees U.S. PIRG’s federal consumer program, helping to lead national efforts to improve consumer credit reporting laws, identity theft protections, product safety regulations and more. Ed is co-founder and continuing leader of the coalition, Americans For Financial Reform, which fought for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, including as its centerpiece the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He was awarded the Consumer Federation of America's Esther Peterson Consumer Service Award in 2006, Privacy International's Brandeis Award in 2003, and numerous annual "Top Lobbyist" awards from The Hill and other outlets. Ed lives in Virginia, and on weekends he enjoys biking with friends on the many local bicycle trails.