The FTC and Nielsen/NetRatings

Update

Nielsen Netratings Responds?

General Accounting Office Helps Substantiate Our Claim Against the FTC

Background

In 1994

Concurrently, a no-income association was formed, InternetU.org. The association was to become the first world wide web think-tank. InternetU.org's statisticians, mathematicians, scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, accountants, students of business administration, as well as, the philosophy department's moral and ethics committee, immediately realized the Pandora's box that had just been opened.

Within the first day of operations, information about our viewership started pouring onto our harddrives. We understood the severe consequences that might result from our behavior. In particular, we realized it was our responsibility to take precautions to protect against the misuse of that information.

We also knew that a reasonable person would not want to endanger any other individual when it came to consumer privacy and security. In particular, we made policy decisions on "push" verses "pull". That is to say -- if someone comes to one of our servers, we would attempt to:

The association launched in-depth investigations into consumer privacy, consumer security, children's privacy, identity theft, on-line profiling (though it wasn't called that at the time), and corporation's social responsibilities.

Since that time we have developed a specialty in Internet Audience Enhancement and Traffic Filtration. On a monthly basis, The Membrane Domain's network interacts with millions of viewers.

Nielsen/NetRatings

In early January of the year 2000, I began to receive phone call and email solicitations from Thomas V. Acquaviva, Nielsen/NetRatings, 412.321.1998.

Apparently, Mr. Acquaviva did not understand who we were. Assuming we were a typical website, he attempted to sell us a traffic analysis package. When I started asking him some tough questions about social responsibility, he sent me this email:

Daniel:

Based on the email you chose, I must have really made a less than fabulous first impression. Hopefully, the information below can begin to help Nielsen//NetRatings gain some credibility. I'm providing performance data collected on WingspanBank.com to give you a good feel for the data. I am also providing information regarding our data collection methodology and service descriptions.

You will see the amount of unique visitors for WingspanBank.com in the month of November and insight into where WingspanBank.com traffic came from. The second file is information regarding the demographics of the surfers on WingspanBank.com. WingspanBank.com seems to have a higher concentration of visitors ages 55-64, salary below $50K with lower level of education. This performance information is based on our US home panel of 38,000 (see below for more detail).

As requested, I would like to provide background on our information, methodology and technology. The best place for that information is on our web-site at http://www.nielsen-netratings.com/products.htm. I have also attached descriptions of two services blankityblank.com may be interested in. Please give me a call with any questions.

I'd be interested in your feedback.

Sincerely:

Thomas V. Acquaviva

Several more phone calls and emails progressed to the point where he still could not answer my questions. At that time, Thomas arranged a conference call with his main headquarters.

Two days later, I called 888-742-xxxx and entered the code for the conference call. Thomas greeted me and introduced me to Barbara Jarzap (sp?). I questioned Barbara in 2 different areas. First, we talked about the validity of their sampling method, etc. After she attempted to defend their methods, we switched the conversation to the second point -- cookies, Java, JavaScript, etc. and how it relates to privacy and security.

In an attempt to reach out and work with them, I explained more about who we are... and, what we do. At first, I asked her if they would like to work with us. Then, I begged with her that we develop a "socially responsible way" to work together.

Q: "Barbara, isn't there a socially responsible way that we could work together?"

A: Her reply, "No".

At that point, my jaw hit the floor and the conversation ended.

The Federal Trade Commission

On April 4th, 2000, I started gathering information... so, that I could publish an article on these matters. While investigating the corporate structure of Nielsen/NetRatings, I came across this public announcement. (click here)

Immediately, I contacted members of the think-tank to get their reaction. After all, how could the agency ordered to protect our consumer privacy obtain their privacy study information through Nielsen/NetRatings?

There has to be some sort-of word or phrase for that, doesn't there? Conflict of interest... asking the fox to guard the chicken coop... selling your soul to the devil?

Filing A Complaint

The next day, I called the FTC and filed a complaint. A consumer counselor assisted me. I explained the situation. She promised to put the complaint right on a lawyer's desk and to bring it to his attention in the morning.

I am still waiting to hear back.


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Addendum

The following form was submitted through this webpage. The author appears to be an employee of Nielsen Netratings (though we can make no claim to it's authenticity.)


Referer URL=http://kingarthur.com/law/Nielsen.html
***SECURITY*** =
email =
phone =
street =
city =
state =
INQUIRY = I work for the Nielsen Netratings so I know the management takes every measure to ensure the most random, unbiased internet research possible. All different types of panel members are recruited from large to small families, families with various nationalities, people who use the internet every day to people who use it very little. I make hundreds of phone calls every day to these panel members so I know first hand. The Company also ensures every employee signs a statement to keep confidential all the personal information relating to any research participant in any of its research surveys. Furthermore, the Company makes clear it will not tolerate any breach in the confidentiality agreement set forth by the Company and signed by each employee.


Our response:

friends,

it looks like they found their article... but, left no way to respond.

1) they fail to make clear... that their sample is from home computers... in the evening. (most of our traffic is during the day... and peaks around 3-4 pm.... quickly falling off.)

2) they fail to mention... that their "random, unbiased internet research" is done by random phone calls... to random phone numbers. how many internet users are on their phone line? ... especially lowbudget, high usage users. (that is to say... they eliminate most internet users that have only one phone line in their house.)

3) they claim to protect the users' confidentiality... after the fact. but, what about when their subjects are out surfing the net... with their java based software turned on?

4) i'm still unclear why we never show-up on their ratings?

5) and, we are but a pimple on the face of the internet... with only scores of millions of montly viewers (and/or listeners)... but, what about all the universities, government sites and other misc. org sites (like NASA), that never show up?


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KingArthur.com Law
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