D.N.T. Is Full Of B.S.

Evidon hosted a consumer privacy conference on July 19 in New York City, which I attended.  Evidon is a company that serves a small icon inside behaviorally targeted display ads so consumers can click to learn which companies are collecting personal information to target ads, and how to opt out of this practice. 

The conference agenda centered on "our" industry's self-regulatory program called "Do Not Track" (D.N.T.).  The experts on the panels were incredibly well-spoken, extremely well-educated on the subject matter, seemed like very nice people -- and, for the most part, were all full of b.s. This included the keynote speaker from the Federal Trade Commission, David Vladeck, whose title is Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, and Genie Barton, who works for the Council of the Better Business Bureau and is apparently responsible for enforcing the adoption of this program among advertisers and their agencies.

What I found so objectionable was the falseness in their collective voice when describing this program as good for consumers.  D.N.T. is as much about protecting the interests of consumers as free checking (banks make a killing on overdraft penalties).  D.N.T. is about making money.  The best interests of consumers are an afterthought. 

The bullshit flew throughout the day, reaching a peak when one agency executive pointed to the incredibly low opt-out rate -- which in his mind, demonstrated that consumers understand these ads are what keep the content free.  Nothing could be farther from reality.  A low opt-out rate indicates consumers don't want to dedicate "their time" to understand "our language" explaining the practice of data collection and how to opt out -- so they give up.  Additionally, consumers don't believe their data won't be collected anyway, so why bother.  The lack of click-through on these icons and lack of opting out for those who do click represent apathy and disgust, not acceptance.  None of the speakers, panelists or those in the audience had an incentive to see this truth.

During a panel discussion about how opting out means "Do not target ads" but can still mean companies can "collect data" to use in other ways, I threw up a little in my mouth.  When it was time for questions, I raised my hand, cleared my throat, and asked, "Why don't you just remove the 'N' from 'D.N.T' so this program becomes an opt-in choice for consumers instead of putting the onus on them to understand how to opt out? Wouldn't that solve a lot of problems for them?"  

A flurry of responses came back from the panelists explaining why that would never work for us.  The moderator then stepped in and asked the room, "Who thinks the D.N.T. program should be opt-in?" I was the only person to raise his hand.

One response to my question stood out.  It came from a panelist named Leslie Harris, who is the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology. Harris said, "The economic impact [of making this opt-in] would kill the industry. Web sites would go out of business." 

When did it become a right to make money from advertising just because you created a Web site?  By allowing companies to peer into the windows of consumer behavior without an invitation, essentially making it impossible for consumers to close their blinds, we are keeping low quality Web sites and shady companies in business.  

If "D.N.T." became "D.T.," high quality sites would prosper from this incremental offering, low quality sites would either be eliminated or forced to improve their value proposition with their users -- and, most importantly, consumers would be treated like people and not like marks.

Note:  If you would like to see our industry treat privacy issues as an opt-in process, "raise your hand" by typing "opt in" in the message boards below.  I will be sharing this column and the subsequent responses with a person in Washington D.C. intimately involved in crafting privacy policies.

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25 comments about "D.N.T. Is Full Of B.S.".
  1. Jonathan Mendez from Yieldbot , August 4, 2011 at 12:48 p.m.

    opt in

  2. Andrea Goodman from ADI , August 4, 2011 at 12:51 p.m.

    opt in

  3. Donna Lehman from MarketUP, LLC , August 4, 2011 at 12:57 p.m.

    Opt in!

  4. James Colistra from Ideas People Media, The Economist Group , August 4, 2011 at 1:01 p.m.

    opt in Please!

  5. Rick Monihan from None , August 4, 2011 at 1:02 p.m.

    100% agreement. Opt in.

    Our industry does not exist to protect individual businesses, it exists to provide a service to consumers AND advertisers...not Publishers and Advertisers.

    I'd like to know, after all the effort we as an industry have put in to protect consumers by saying "don't click on things that seem suspicious", how people are supposed to know and understand what they are clicking on to opt out. Even if they do roll the dice and make the click, have you read the pages you're lead to? Some are so obtuse as to be useless.

    A very good friend of mine worked in Direct Mail and told me some of their business practices. One, for example, is that Opt in email addresses are much more valuable than Opt out. These are consumers who are seeking information, thus more likely to accept and open ads sent via email. The same is true for online display.
    We assume (possibly correctly) that Opt in cannot scale. Well, maybe it shouldn't. If people won't opt in - maybe it's unfair to assume (we know what happens when we do that) that people are complacent about their information.

    I know virtually everyone I talk to that isn't in our industry is concerned, but few know there is anything they can do about it. When they find out - they take the needed steps. Even then, they are skeptical it works.

  6. Richard Aylward from Hallmark Data Services , August 4, 2011 at 1:04 p.m.

    Why can't we give consumers credit for being intelligent enough to understand that website behavior is and will continue to be tracked.

    The result of behavior marketing will be targeted messages that will be more relevant to my interests and needs.

    To me its a win win.
    If not, Opt Out.

  7. Tobias Zerr from iExplore.com , August 4, 2011 at 1:06 p.m.

    opt in

  8. Tony Anderson from SF Ad Guy , August 4, 2011 at 1:16 p.m.

    Double Opt In!

  9. Amy Chou from MediaPost Communications , August 4, 2011 at 1:22 p.m.

    opt in

  10. Eric Picard from TRAFFIQ , August 4, 2011 at 1:25 p.m.

    Opt IN! I've written extensively on this topic, including this little gem called, "Our Industry's Unethical, Indefensible Behavior" - which I have to admit, my editor selected, but is only a bit hyperbolic. http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/28872.asp

  11. Tim Leffel from Perceptive Travel , August 4, 2011 at 1:36 p.m.

    Opt in!

    I didn't even know this ability to opt out existed---and I'm a publisher who can figure out Google Ad Manager and code HTML. So you can just imagine why the do not track function isn't understood by consumers.

    Option 2 - make it as easy to do this and opting out of telemarketing calls. Fill in info, click enter, and advertisers (mostly networks) who don't abide are breaking the law.

  12. Stephane Pere from The Economist Group , August 4, 2011 at 3:17 p.m.

    opt in as in Europe

  13. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 4, 2011 at 4:09 p.m.

    Opt in. Anyone really expect people to read and understand to follow the bread crumbs to opt out when they can't understand debit and credit or how to balance a check book? I will try to never use the wrong expression again although tracking is not such a commendable operation either. If I want to receive a company's emails does not mean I want them to have any information about me more than necessary and it's OK for them to sell it.

  14. Keith Huntoon from LiftEngine , August 4, 2011 at 5:07 p.m.

    Opt in!

    Our industry sounds like the tobacco lobby years ago. "If you regulate us, we'll lose profits and jobs will be lost. Sure, we cause cancer, but we're profitable!"

    It's a scare tactic to state "The economic impact [of making this opt-in] would kill the industry. Web sites would go out of business."

    While the economics of the web have changed over the years, I'm convinced it's only the self-serving intermediaries (networks, exchanges, DMP's, DSP's, etc) who will suffer.

    As with the email and telemarketing industries referenced by others, reputable, opt-in display advertisers will do well. Over a short period of time, advertisers and publishers will find a market level that works for all.

  15. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing, LLC , August 4, 2011 at 5:14 p.m.

    @Keith and everyone else -- AMEN!!!! I have emailed as promised, this column and your feedback to a person who works on this privacy issue for Representative Henry Waxman -- our voices on this subject have been drowned out by our own governing bodies and it's time our thoughts on this subject are heard!!!!

  16. Greg P from stealth , August 4, 2011 at 5:39 p.m.

    Opt-in.

    In ten years, as a small publisher of sports sites, we have never once received a higher CPM from ad networks, agencies or marketers for dropping cookies or tracking our visitors/readers.

    The hard truth is that tracking of users has dramatically hurt most publishers large and small, in the theft of user data, which is often used against those very same websites (ala remarketing and behavorial targeting).

    Websites dont benefit and consumers certainly dont.

    One further thought, if the industry doesnt make it happen, some sharp programmers will through a browser plug-in.

  17. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing, LLC , August 4, 2011 at 6:37 p.m.

    Yes Greg Yes!!!!

  18. Chris Carter from Campo Carter Partners , August 4, 2011 at 9:46 p.m.

    C'mon Ari, why would we ever rely on content to create user engagement when we can badger readers on 10 different web sites with the same banner ad?
    Many users have become oblivious to ads on the web just like more traditional media, so they will never react to opt out.
    Opt in would illustrate a lot of confidence in our medium.

  19. Juliette Cowall from Godwin Plumbing & Hardware , August 5, 2011 at 8:08 a.m.

    opt in

  20. Gavin Dunaway from Adotas.com , August 5, 2011 at 10:06 a.m.

    Opt in.

    http://www.adotas.com/2011/06/the-opt-in-revolution-has-an-asset/ or http://goo.gl/TVj3V

    Turning the current landscape into an opt-in environment where consumers managed their data is possible, but it would be difficult to implement and it would hurt the business models of many companies you

    Also, there's a big gap between Do Not Track and Opting Out of Behavioral Targeting, in which as Ari mentioned companies still collect data but just not for targeting.

    http://www.adotas.com/2011/07/epic-calls-history-stealing-claim-bogus/or http://goo.gl/qmS6H

  21. Curt Baxter from Salem Broadcasting , August 5, 2011 at 12:23 p.m.

    Op In.

  22. Robert Repas from Machine Design Magazine , August 5, 2011 at 1:33 p.m.

    Opt in, most assuredly and decidedly so!!

  23. William Hoelzel from JWB Associates , August 5, 2011 at 6:44 p.m.

    Opt in.

  24. Cece Forrester from tbd , August 7, 2011 at 6:54 p.m.

    Opt in.

    Real professionals don't kid themselves that they are a more fit arbiter of what's "good" for the consumer than the consumer him- or herself and that their wishes are not actually based on their own self-interest. Marketers, you may not understand why a consumer would not be interested in something you offer, but you still ought to respect their decision. That's better for *you* whether you understand it or not.

  25. Angus Glover wilson from TagMan , September 29, 2011 at 11:05 a.m.

    Opt in please