For those that haven't been keeping up with the trades lately, here's some quick background -- a group of consumer advocacy groups are pushing for the creation of a Do-Not-Track list that would allow people to prevent companies from tracking their Web activity. In a nutshell, the proposal calls for a universal cookie opt-out.
The Do-Not-Track concept is fashioned after the Do-Not-Call initiative that was started to help consumers opt-out of telemarketing. However, outside of the name itself, I don't see the parallels here.
Do-Not-Call was created in response to consumer complaints about getting too many annoying calls from telemarketers. People aren't complaining about getting too many annoying cookies from marketers and publishers.
People are complaining about getting too many disruptive, irrelevant ads. This abstract from a recent Forrester report says it well: "Since 2004, consumer attitudes toward advertising have improved, offering hope to marketers, publishers, and media agencies. However, sentiment remains negative overall, and more consumers have put their dissatisfaction into action by taking steps to block ads. Consumers cite clutter, interruption, and irrelevance as the key reasons for their frustration. It's high time for marketers to improve ROI by launching technology-supported campaigns that will improve targeting and reduce spending waste."
People aren't complaining about cookies, they're complaining about ads -- specifically, ads that clutter and interrupt the media they're consuming and aren't relevant to them personally.
So will Do-Not-Track help prevent annoying ads?
As noted in the Washington Post's coverage of this story -- "You still receive ads," said Ari Schwartz, Deputy Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, who helped craft the Do-Not-Track proposal. "Companies just won't be able to track what sites you visit."
And that's supposed to be a good thing?
By using cookies to better profile users and target ads, publishers can command a higher CPM, which allows them to reduce the number of ad units on each page -- effectively eliminating clutter.
And using cookies helps marketers craft ads customized to people's interests -- increasing relevancy. It also helps marketers personalize information once consumers arrive at their properties. A recent Avenue A / Razorfish study showed 72% of online shoppers found personalized recommendations helpful.
As for interruption, I don't think you can make the case that deleting cookies will have an impact. Publishers that run full-page takeover ads or spam their email lists are going to do so with or without cookie data. And, again, the less they can monetize their ad inventory through cookie profiling, the more they'll be incented to run interruptive placements.
But are annoying ads even the real problem here?
From the way Do-Not-Track is being bandied about in the press, it doesn't seem like it. A recent Ad Age column features advocates of Do-Not-Track describing the issue as creating "a privacy imbalance that has deprived Americans of the right to control their personal information."
Sounds to me like they're equating cookie-based data collection with loss of civil liberties -- which just so happens to be #2 on the TRUSTe list of privacy issues that worry Internet users most.
#1 on that list is identity theft. Here, too, it seems certain groups are trying to pin a major privacy issue on cookies. TheNew York Times ran a quote from Jon Leibowitz, commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, saying in reference to Do-Not-Track, "When you're surfing the Internet, you never know who is peering over your shoulder."
MediaPost covered another example of scare tactics around Do-Not-Track -- Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, proposed a scenario where "a Web surfer who discloses a medical condition online might end up being denied health insurance coverage if that information got into the wrong hands."
The bottom line here is that these groups are misleading the public by positioning cookie-tracking as the root of all privacy evil. A Do-Not-Track list will not reduce identity theft nor prevent against loss of civil liberties. It won't protect against misuse of personal information (remember, cookies collect only non-PII.) And Do-Not-Track won't make online ads any more relevant nor will it decrease their clutter or interruptive nature.
So if not Do-Not-Track, then what?
While I applaud their proactive nature, I don't think programs like the Network Advertising Initiative or Ask Eraser are the answers. Simply giving consumers the opportunity to opt out of cookie-based data collection is not the right way to go about this. Instead we need to educate and, dare I say, compensate consumers for sharing their data.
And we can't do this on an ad-hoc, one-off basis. We need to come together as an industry (whether through self-regulation or mandate) on issues like tracking transparency. Consumers should know what information is being tracked and how it's being used. They should be able to control what they share and how they share it. Standardization of privacy policies would go a long way.
The key to all this, of course, is education. Right now all the public is hearing are the horror stories (does anyone remember what exactly "Dateline NBC" covered before they started catching online predators?)
We need to show people that there can be value in sharing their non-personally identifiable information when done through trusted sources. AOL is on the right track with the program it just announced -- but that still focuses too much on simply enabling opt-outs.
As I mentioned earlier, one way to show people the value in their data may be to compensate them for sharing it -- potentially through an infomediary, as Gord Hotchkiss recently discussed. Another would be to enable true data mobility --which is what Facebook Beacon is all about.
At the end of the day, search is currently the only place where marketers and publishers can get explicit information from consumers regarding their interests. Cookie-tracking is our only hope to bring the highly targeted nature of search advertising to the display world. The bottom line is that, if we want to have our cake and eat it too, we can't let people throw away their cookies.