Do-Not-Track and the murky world of online advertising

Do-Not-Track and the murky world of online advertising
The campaign to defang the "Do Not Track" movement began late last month.

Do 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."

Next 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 Americans.

"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 track' setting."

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.

The 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.

The 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 industry group.

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.

"If 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 the process.

"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.

"While 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 to me."

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.

Besides, the 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 tailored ads.

"We have self-regulation. It's working very well," he says. "Why don't we give that a chance to succeed?"

Some 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 with exceptions.

"To date, self-regulation for the purposes of consumer privacy protection has failed," Mr. Rockefeller wrote.

Now 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 bad thing."

Copyright 2012, The New York Times News Service


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