Even Eli Pariser, author of a best-selling book about the threat posed by Web personalization, is skeptical about the success of current Do Not Track efforts by the Federal Trade Commission. “Do Not Track would probably offer a binary choice – either you’re in or you’re out – and services that make money on tracking might simply disable themselves for Do Not Track list members,” Pariser wrote in 2011, as his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You went to press. “If most of the Internet goes dark for these people, they’ll quickly leave the list. And as a result, the process could backfire – ‘proving’ that people don’t care about tracking, when in fact what most of us want is more nuanced ways of asserting control.” Little has changed in the year since Pariser wrote those words.
The FTC is still considering Do Not Track proposals. Some companies – most notably Twitter and Mozilla – have already begun to comply voluntarily with guidelines. Meanwhile, some third parties are offering browser add-ons to give people the protection of a Do Not Track list.
But in almost all instances, it remains an all-or-nothing proposition: Give up the benefits of tracking, which includes a more personalized browsing experience, or concede that sites you visit will distribute information about you to third parties, without your knowledge.
Do Not Track Can Curb Convenience
The worst-case scenario described in Pariser’s book, where vast areas of the Internet are closed to people who do not allow tracking, hasn’t played out yet, but that could change.
Aaron Messing, an attorney who specializes in Internet privacy issues with OlenderFeldman LLP in Union, N.J., has been using a third-party app to prevent tracking. The free add-on by Abine hasn’t impacted his ability to visit sites, but he has lost some personalization: For example, weather websites no longer remember his ZIP code to give him the local forecast, and Twitter no longer suggests users he may want to follow.
How this would change if the FTC takes a strong regulatory stance on DNT is not clear.
“Currently, it is unclear what, if any, website functionalities will be impaired by DNT,” Messing said. “Presumably, websites could design their sites not to function, or to provide limited functionality, with DNT enabled.”
Targeted Ads are the Price of a “Mostly Free” Internet
What concerns privacy advocates is that tracking can be used quite effectively to target advertising. They see it as personalized spam, while marketers argue that by cataloging click signals, they don’t waste consumers’ time with ads that do not interest them or apply to them. Either way, the tactic is effective: Microsoft Research found that so-called behavioral targeting can increase click-thorugh rates by 670%, while a Network Advertising Initiative study recorded 2.68 times more revenue for targeted advertising over nontargeted advertising.
Dennis Dayman, chief privacy and security officer for Eloqua, said the trade-off may be worth it for most Internet users.
“Most people tend to overlook the fact that the Internet is mostly free… and this is tied in no small part to the revenue generated by targeted advertising,” Dayman said. “How would [DNT] impact your daily life? Add to that a lack of personalization for the ads and pages visited daily, and things would appear to be quite dismal. People need to really consider the pros and cons of limited online privacy and think about what that limited privacy means.”
The Proposal’s Scope is Limited
Elizabeth Coker of 3PMobile says while DNT standards are not yet finalized, as currently proposed, they do not live up to the original intent of the rules.
“Most consumers think it means no tracking – ever. In reality, the technical spec is only about third-party tracking without permission,” Coker said. And, she added, “Do Not Track is entirely self-regulated at this point. While privacy advocates and attorneys are part of the process, so are the companies who have the most to gain by finding ‘exceptions’ and keeping things the way they are.”