The campaign to defang the "Do Not Track" movement began late last month.
Not Track mechanisms are features on browsers like Mozilla's Firefox
that give consumers the option of sending out digital signals asking
companies to stop collecting information about their online activities
for purposes of targeted advertising.
First came a stern letter
from nine members of the House of Representatives to the Federal Trade
Commission, questioning its involvement with an international group
called the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, which is trying to work
out global standards for the don't-track-me features. The legislators
said they were concerned that these options for consumers might restrict
"the flow of data at the heart of the Internet's success."
came an incensed open letter from the board of the Association of
National Advertisers to Steve Ballmer, the C.E.O. of Microsoft, and two
other company officials. Microsoft had committed a grievous infraction,
wrote executives from Dell, I.B.M., Intel, Visa, Verizon, Wal-Mart and
other major corporations, by making Do Not Track the default option in
the company's forthcoming Internet Explorer 10 browser. If consumers
chose to stay with that option, the letter warned, they could prevent
companies from collecting data on up to 43 percent of browsers used by
"Microsoft's action is wrong. The entire media
ecosystem has condemned this action," the letter said. "In the face of
this opposition and the reality of the harm that your actions could
create, it is time to realign with the broader business community by
providing choice through a default of 'off' on your browser's 'do not
So far, Microsoft has shrugged off advertisers'
complaints. In an e-mailed statement, Brendon Lynch, Microsoft's chief
privacy officer, said a recent company study of computer users in the
United States and Europe concluded that 75 percent wanted Microsoft to
turn on the Do Not Track mechanism.
"Consumers want and expect strong privacy protection to be built into Microsoft products and services," Mr. Lynch wrote.
tone of the industry offensive may seem a bit strident, given that the
W3C has yet to decide how to implement the don't-track-me mechanisms or
even what they signify. For the moment, that means the browser buttons
are little more than digital bumper stickers whose sentiments companies
are free to embrace or entirely ignore.
But what is really at stake here is the future of the surveillance economy.
advent of Do Not Track threatens the barter system wherein consumers
allow sites and third-party ad networks to collect information about
their online activities in exchange for open access to maps, e-mail,
games, music, social networks and whatnot. Marketers have been fighting
to preserve this arrangement, saying that collecting consumer data
powers effective advertising tailored to a user's tastes. In turn,
according to this argument, those tailored ads enable smaller sites to
thrive and provide rich content.
"If we do away with this relevant
advertising, we are going to make the Internet less diverse, less
economically successful, and frankly, less interesting," says Mike
Zaneis, the general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an
But privacy advocates argue that in a digital
ecosystem where there may be dozens of third-party entities on an
individual Web page, compiling and storing information about what a user
reads, searches for, clicks on or buys, consumers should understand
data mining's potential costs to them and have the ability to opt out.
you are looking up the word 'cancer' " on a health site, says Dan
Auerbach, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a
digital rights group in San Francisco, "there's a high probability that
you have cancer or are interested in that. This is the sort of data that
can be collected." He adds: "Consumers absolutely have a right to know
how their information is being used and to opt out of having their
information used in ways they don't like."
But the two sides seem
to have reached an impasse. When the W3C met recently in Amsterdam to
hammer out Do Not Track standards, as my colleague Kevin J. O'Brien
reported in an article earlier this month, advertising industry
executives and privacy advocates accused each other of trying to stymie
"There is a strong concern that the W3C is not the
right forum to be making this decision," says Rachel Thomas, the vice
president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, a
trade group based in Manhattan. "The attempt to set public policy is
entirely outside their area of expertise."
During the Amsterdam
meeting, Ms. Thomas proposed that Do Not Track signals should actually
permit data collection for advertising purposes, the very thing the
mechanisms were designed to control. That provocative idea went over
with European privacy advocates about as well as a smoker lighting up in
a no-smoking zone full of asthmatics.
Indeed, some prominent consumer advocates have interpreted the industry's proposal as an act of bad faith.
many advertisers do support privacy, there is clearly a rogue element
of advertising networks that wants to subvert the process," says Jon D.
Leibowitz, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. "Or so it seems
Earlier this year at a White House event, the Digital
Advertising Alliance, or D.A.A., an industry consortium, pledged to
honor don't-track-me signals so long as the systems required consumers
to make an affirmative choice. But last Tuesday, the consortium
published guidelines saying that it viewed Microsoft's latest browser
setting as an automatic, machine-driven choice preselected by a company
not a choice actively made by an individual consumer. During the
installment process, Microsoft's new software actually does give users a
choice of whether to keep the mechanism on, or to turn it off.
Nevertheless, the consortium said it would not require members to honor
the forthcoming browser's don't-track-me signals.
D.A.A. has already established its own program for consumers who want to
opt out of receiving ads tailored to their online behavior, says Mr.
Zaneis, whose own group is a member of that consortium. The consortium
remains committed to incorporating browser signals into its program, he
says, provided that the systems require consumers to make affirmative
choices and give them information on the potential effects of eschewing
"We have self-regulation. It's working very well," he says. "Why don't we give that a chance to succeed?"
government officials vehemently disagree. In a letter to the F.T.C.
earlier this month, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West
Virginia, called the industry program an "ineffective regime" riddled
"To date, self-regulation for the purposes of consumer privacy protection has failed," Mr. Rockefeller wrote.
regulators are warning that opposition to Do Not Track could backfire
on advertisers, by giving browsers more incentive to empower frustrated
users."We might see a technology arms race with browsers racing to see
by letting consumers block ads who can be the most
privacy-protective," says Mr. Leibowitz of the F.T.C. "Maybe that's not a
Copyright 2012, The New York Times News Service