The attack on Do Not Track

If your ability to make money hinges on keeping people in the dark, there’s nothing quite so discombobulating as the prospect of someone turning on the light.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission recommended the establishment of a Do Not Track program for the Internet. The program would give people a simple way to block companies from collecting personal data about them, data that is today routinely collected and used for targeted, or “behavioral,” advertising. The Do Not Track program, which in some ways would be similar to the popular Do Not Call program for blocking telemarketers, is part of a broader FTC effort to, as David Vladeck, director of the commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, described in Congressional testimony last Thursday, “improve the transparency of businesses’ data practices, simplify the ability of consumers to exercise choices about how their information is collected and used, and ensure that businesses take privacy-protective measures as they develop and implement systems that involve consumer information,” while at the same time being “cautious about restricting the exchange and use of consumer data in order to preserve the substantial consumer benefits made possible through the flow of information.”

Vladeck noted in his testimony that, despite the fact that concerns about online privacy have been growing for years, the digital media and advertising industry’s self-regulation efforts have on the whole been scattershot, confusing, and insufficient. Given “these limitations,” Vladek said,

the Commission supports a more uniform and comprehensive consumer choice mechanism for online behavioral advertising, sometimes referred to as “Do Not Track.” The most practical method of providing uniform choice for online behavioral advertising would likely involve placing a setting similar to a persistent cookie on a consumer’s browser, and conveying that setting to sites that the browser visits, to signal whether or not the consumer wants to be tracked or receive targeted advertisements. To be effective, there must be an enforceable requirement that sites honor those choices.

Such a mechanism would ensure that consumers would not have to exercise choices on a company-by-company or industry-by-industry basis, and that such choices would be persistent. It should also address some of the concerns with the existing browser mechanisms, by being more clear, easy-to-locate, and effective, and by conveying directly to websites the user’s choice to opt out of tracking. Such a universal mechanism could be accomplished through legislation or potentially through robust, enforceable self-regulation.

Vladek also made it clear that the FTC recognizes that “consumers may want more granular options” than a universal opt-out: “We therefore urge Congress to consider whether a uniform and comprehensive choice mechanism should include an option that enables consumers to control the types of advertising they want to receive and the types of data they are willing to have collected about them, in addition to providing the option to opt out completely.”

It has been amusing to watch the companies that have an interest in the surreptitious collection of personal information struggle to find ways to criticize the FTC’s sensible proposal. In an article in today’s New York Times, for example, several online advertising executives air some remarkably lame objections. “The do-not-track button holds far more complexities than the designers of the framework envision,” intones John Montgomery, the chief operating officer of the digital division of ad giant WPP. “If a number of consumers opt out, it might limit the ability for companies to monetize the Internet.” Yes, and if a number of consumers decide not to shop at Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart might not make as much money. And if a number of consumers decide to cancel their newspaper and magazine subscriptions, it might limit the ability of companies to monetize the printed page. I believe that’s called freedom of choice, and it seems to me that consumers should be entrusted with that choice rather than having the choice made for them, secretly, by Montgomery and his ilk.

Montgomery also warns that by opting out of behavioral advertising, consumers would lose the benefits of such advertising. “With behavioral tracking,” he says, by way of example, “women will not get ads for Viagra and men will not see ads for feminine hygiene products.” This is very true. There would be a tradeoff involved in choosing the Do Not Track option. But, again, shouldn’t people be able to make that tradeoff consciously rather than blindly, as is currently the case? Here, too, Montgomery seems to be arguing that people are incapable of making rational choices. Or maybe he’s just afraid of the choices they would make if they were given the opportunity to make them.

Another commonly stated objection to Do Not Track is that, by making online advertising less effective, it could lead to a reduction in the amount of content and the number of services given away free online. Adam Thierer, the former president of the libertarian Progress & Freedom Foundation, makes this case at the Technology Liberation Front blog: “Most importantly, if ‘Do Not Track’ really did work as billed, it could fundamentally upend the unwritten quid pro quo that governs online content and services: Consumers get lots of ‘free’ sites, services, and content, but only if we generally agree to trade some data about ourselves and have ads served up. After all, as we’ve noted many times before here, there is no free lunch.” Note Thierer’s use of the terms “unwritten quid pro quo” and “generally agree.” What the FTC is suggesting is that the unwritten quid pro quo be written, and that the general agreement be made specific. Does Thierer really believe that invisible tradeoffs are somehow better than visible ones? Shouldn’t people know the cost of “free” services, and then be allowed to make decisions based on their own cost-benefit analysis? Isn’t that the essence of the free market that Thierer so eloquently celebrates?

There may be valid arguments to make against a Do Not Track program – some of the technical details remain fuzzy, and government regulation, if done clumsily, can impede innovation – but the suggestion that people shouldn’t be allowed to make informed choices about their privacy because some businesses may suffer as a result of those choices is ludicrous and even offensive. Like most people, I have the capacity to understand that, should I choose the Do Not Track option, I may on occasion see an ad for tampons where otherwise I would have seen an ad for erectile dysfunction tablets. In fact, I’m already girding my loins in preparation for such a calamitous eventuality. I think I may survive.

4 thoughts on “The attack on Do Not Track

  1. Stewart Dinnage

    I found this post excellent, it exposes some of the weakest arguments imaginable against users having the freedom to control their own data.

    Next step: give the do not track the power of the default, i.e. opt in not opt out thank you.

  2. Leighton Webb

    Hi Nick,

    I appreciated the attention you gave to the “Do Not Track” issue recently. I thought I’d offer my perspective as a former media company executive (AOL, 20th Century Fox, Oprah Winfrey Network) now working for a technology provider for publishers and media companies to help solve many of the privacy issues associated with online advertising.

    Call me “Pollyannaish” but I do think that the industry can deliver better behavioral advertising while actually increasing protection of personal user data. That being said, the solution will likely be driven by technology, not a government mandated program. So, I agree with the concerns you raised about this scenario and had a few other thoughts.

    1) Do Not Track and Do Not Call are not an apples-to-apples comparison. Online advertisers don’t interrupt your dinner conversation with something that delivers zero value and is completely non-personalized. And content publishers should have the right monitor website visitors, just as brick and mortar retailers monitor shoppers in their stores.

    2) “Do Not Track” won’t do much to limit the growing power of the biggest players, including Microsoft, Google/DoubleClick and Facebook, all of whom enjoy colossal information advantages over content publishers, media companies and advertisers.

    3) It is quite likely that FTC regulation will distort the online advertising marketplace, creating unintended consequences at the very moment when the Web is about to fulfill its potential as a truly addressable one to one medium.

    While working at the Oprah Winfrey Network, I first encountered the VisualDNA platform, which takes a very different approach to audience profiling and segmentation. Instead of surreptitiously mining visitors for clues about their preferences, VisualDNA takes novel approach that is refreshing in its simplicity: they ask for user permission.

    VisualDNA invites audience members to answer questions by clicking on photos in a visual quiz. Those who complete the poll get an immediate and valuable benefit: the entire content of the web site they are visiting is automatically reconfigured to recommend content in line with their preferences. Afterwards, the visitors can edit their preferences at any time. They can even opt out of the program altogether – at any time.

    We think our approach is refreshing, and it might represent the best way to solve the user privacy/online advertising conflict.

    Leighton Webb

    US Managing Director


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