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Do-Not-Track Deserves to Be Derailed

  |  February 18, 2011   |  Comments

Lawmakers should not overlook a greater peril to online consumers: cyber crime.

Data-driven advertising is under siege.

News this week that the Senate Judiciary Committee created a subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and Law is one more signal that consumer privacy - and restricting behaviorally-targeted ads - has emerged as the cause de jour in Washington, D.C., and across the nation.

Many legislators have taken up the cause. U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, for one, crafted a clever title for her bill: "Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011." When you position it that way, it's tough to counter. Politicians have demonstrated they are savvier at marketing than full-time marketers.

However, the current debate over targeted advertising, including a push for a do-not-track mechanism, is misguided for many reasons. Let's consider a few.

Cyber Crime Takes a Back Seat

Debate over behavioral targeting detracts attention from a far more serious threat: cyber crime. People are not inclined to rally against faceless, nameless hacks. Instead, it's easier to go after Facebook, Google, and other highly visible companies with newly minted millionaires.

Government officials from the Pentagon to the U.S. Department of Commerce recently brought renewed attention to cyber crime's perils.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, in a fact sheet this week, pushed for more money to protect the cyber infrastructure. "A national survey by Consumer Reports estimated that spam, viruses, spyware, and phishing cost U.S. consumers almost $5 billion in 2010. In a study of 45 medium and large organizations (those with more than 500 employees), the Ponemon Institute found cyber crime cost them an average of about $3.8 million annually," stated the NIST, which is part of the Department of Commerce.

And, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III, in a meeting with information technology professionals in San Francisco this week, called for more cooperation between government and business to combat cyber crime. "Sophisticated anti-virus suites now run on about 10 million lines of code…up from one million lines in only a decade. Yet malware written with as little as 125 lines of code has remained able to penetrate anti-virus software across this same period," he said, according to an American Forces Press Service report.

Government Cannot Keep Pace With Technology

The debate over data-driven advertising fails to take into account that technology evolves faster than government. So if a privacy measure is adopted, it's possible it could be obsolete before it's signed into law. Take for instance mobile marketing. Already advertisers have moved beyond solutions used to target ads via the desktop, instead deploying emerging technologies such as device fingerprinting to track users and ads without the use of cookies at all.

Just how slow does the government move? "It currently takes the Pentagon 81 months to field a new information technology system. The iPhone was developed in just 24 months," the deputy defense secretary said during his speech at the RSA security conference.

What's More…

Some critics of data-driven advertising also fail to take into account other factors. They:

  • Underestimate the ability of online communities to organize and call out businesses and other organizations. Social media marketer Erik Qualman, author of the book, "Socialnomics," commented on ClickZ: "This just in Egypt…at best [social media] can topple a government."
  • Overestimate the ability of business and government to protect all people all of the time. This struck me when a Facebook friend wrote on her wall: "Dear School, You should really be more careful with version control. Thanks for sending me the names, numbers, addresses, and parent info for every single second grader." Should there be a law against the sloppy use of version controls in Word or other documents?
  • Overlook the fact that measures like a do-not-track mechanism threaten the future of ad-supported publishing. "Without that trade-off of free content in exchange for data, publishers won't have the resources to support high quality content. As a result, they would have to charge for content, or the quality of their content would likely go down," said Datran Media Chief Privacy Officer Steven Vine in a statement to ClickZ. (He believes the goal of a do-not-track mechanism should not be to stop tracking, but to give consumers meaningful choices about whether to be tracked and how to control it.)

What's Next?

World-class companies will establish the role of chief privacy officer. It's already happening.

Businesses that support online communities, such as Facebook, should consider going one step further: retain an independent consumer advocate or ombudsman to review consumer complaints and respond to queries - similar to the role of reader advocate at The New York Times and newspapers.

Bottom line: businesses, politicians, and consumers should rally to support efforts to shore up online security. That includes creating mechanisms that make it easier for consumers to report spam and scams – and preserve the Internet as a vibrant place for commerce and communications.

Addendum: The Federal Trade Commission is accepting comments up until today on its proposal to implement a do-not-track mechanism so consumers can choose whether to allow the collection of data regarding their online searching and browsing activities. ClickZ, working with marketing experts, is sharing feedback - outlining the pros and cons of the proposed design, implementation, and potential impact of such a mechanism.

Related Reading

'Do-Not-Track' Dissected: ClickZ Sends Feedback to FTC by ClickZ News Staff

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.

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