Why Don't We Pay Attention To Do-Not-Track?

I can safely say that the session on online privacy wasn’t the best-attended offering at OMMA Social at Advertising Week on Tuesday. Sure, it was late in the day, but there’s a part of me that thinks, in addition, it’s because no one wants to talk about it. After all, when there’s so much excitement around behavioral and social targeting, who wants to shut down the party? Who wants to admit that the current debate about how do-not-track is being implemented on browsers is an extreme threat to all of the fun everyone’s having? All of the money everyone’s making? All of the opportunity everyone sees?

But as I listened to the panel of experts talk, it became clear to me that most of us -- this columnist included -- have some waking up to do. Decisions are on the verge of being made for the industry that, to me, harken back a bit to the attempted SOPA/PIPA legislation which clumsily tried to enact piracy legislation earlier this year. The constituencies and issues may be different with do-not-track, but I got the feeling that, once again, things are close to being agreed upon without proper input from all parties. The industry dodged the bullet last time; we may not be so lucky this time.

I will not pretend to be an expert on the issue, but one panelist -- Jason Bier, chief privacy officer of ValueClick, who recently attended meetings on the issue at the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), made it clear that the digital ad business runs the risk of being thrown under the bus by people wgi don’t understand the ramifications of decisions that could too easily make online advertising “one size fits all.” That wouldn’t be exactly great for CPMs. Bier, and Allie Savarino Kline -- another panelist who is chief marketing officer of 33Across -- noted that in much of the discussions going on about this, the voices of mom-and-pop publishers, who depend on online advertising revenue for their very existence, are completely absent.

To realize how big the disconnect is between the digital ad business and everyone else,  ponder the fact that Microsoft  -- which is, of course, a player in the advertising business  -- plans to make “do-not-track” the default setting on Internet Explorer 10. The Association of National Advertisers is none too pleased about this development, but, so far, the powers-that-be at Microsoft remain unmoved. (Possible subplot: some people believe this is actually a sneaky way of keeping Google from making money off I.E. users.)

But the problems run much deeper than what goes on at regulatory meetings.  The digital advertising industry has done a lousy job of expressing why being tracked might be a good thing, right down to not finding an alternative to the creepy terminology that describes how ads are served to those who see them. Another panelist, Group M Interaction COO John Montgomery, noted that words like “tracking” and “targeting” carry with them extremely negative connotations. Additionally, the way that the pros and cons of being tracked are described by browsers aren’t always, well, fair and balanced.

A good example is this description of “do-not-track” in the support section of Mozilla Firefox’s Web site. It never explains that if you, the user, opt in to tracking, you still remain anonymous. Advertisers can’t show up at your house. You have to believe that most users assume the opposite. Meanwhile, the description’s one concession to the other side of the argument -- that targeted advertising is the lifeblood of the Internet -- is this glancing reference:  “Note: You may see less relevant advertising on websites if you have the do-not-track option activated.”

I’m going to suggest the following small tweak to the above. Here goes: “Note: You may see less relevant advertising on websites if you have the do-not-track option activated – assuming that the new, do-not-track-borne economics of the Internet don’t put those websites out of business."

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4 comments about "Why Don't We Pay Attention To Do-Not-Track?".
  1. Paul Benjou from 3D Printing Bureau , October 4, 2012 at 2:37 p.m.
    It is my understanding that microsoft's DNT header will be positioned to the visited site and it is UP TO THE SITE to honor (or not) the DNT request. If it is indeed the case, I fail to see the harm in DNT. The industry's rally should focus on the publishers who make the decision reflecting their customer's best interests. The sky is not falling. As for anonymity ... how long will it be before IP addresses are legally (or in a circumventing manner)matched to e-mail addresses? It's not so much about what is being "tracked" but more about what can ultimately happen to the data and behavior of a not-so-anonymous consumer.
  2. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship , October 4, 2012 at 2:54 p.m.
    Forget DNT... how about simply abiding by email unsubscribes. No one monitors that anymore and it is virtually impossible to actually get taken off an email list. Even is it stops for a while, it starts right back up again. Good luck getting anyone to abide by DNT.
  3. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost , October 4, 2012 at 3:59 p.m.
    Hi Paul, Interesting perspective, and I thought of getting into that but the column was getting long. My feeling is that most reputable advertisers and sites will feel the need to honor DNT even if it isn't officially regulated -- the downside is way too high for not doing so, and regulation could be coming anyway. Thanks for reading and commenting! Cathy
  4. Ross Bradley from Qeg Pty Ltd , October 4, 2012 at 11:33 p.m.
    Gidday Paul - what happens to those publishers making decisions on behalf of their 'customers' if we find that all the big search engines and all their own publisher networks decide to adopt the (Microsoft's) DNT principles? The "Do Not Track" privacy feature in its IE 10 would: "harm consumers, hurt competition, and undermine American innovation."?? My take: http://seekingalpha.com/instablog/36191-lookingconfident/1142131-x01-x01dnt-it-s-about-users-and-that-real-time-user-intent Thanks