Do Not Track: Power to the People?

The FTC’s Town Hall forum on behavioral targeting earlier this month stirred an already boiling pot regarding tracking practices in the online marketing industry and their potential impact on consumer privacy. At the forum, privacy advocates pushed for the establish of a Do-Not-Track list similar to the national Do-Not-Call registry administered by the FTC.

Those inside the online marketing industry know the behavioral information being tracked isn’t personally-identifiable. Problem is, consumers don’t understand how the technology works. Those who know anything about tracking realize there’s some sort of profiling going on. Even though they may not know the specifics, they still don’t like it.

Online insiders often argue that any Do-Not-Track plan would result in more ads, more intrusion on consumers, lower profit margins for providers of behavioral targeting or any online ads, and less incentive for innovation.

But increased government regulation would put an unnecessarily negative spin on the whole debate, as if the consuming public needs a savior from the big, bad ad industry.

Consumers have always happily traded free content for ad exposures. Those ad exposures have become increasingly targeted as technology improves. This isn’t new or even exclusive to online. If individuals choose not to participate in the ad economy, should they be required to support the content they consume in other ways? Ask the nation’s premier newspapers how well paid subscriptions online were received.

While government is slow and ponderous, the Internet is a dynamic environment providing benefits during its constant evolution. Any government response is sure to put a drag on the innovation by shear delays alone. Government intervention should be a last resort and applied only to a demonstrable threat.

If consumers understood that the data tracked was not “theirs” but belonged to a faceless, nameless entity that could not be tied back to them, would they be so afraid? Are they really afraid, or is this the loud voice of a small minority with a privacy agenda? Do consumers understand the issue well enough to weigh in?

The industry attempted to offer its own solution with the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) opt-out cookie program, but publisher participation has been spotty and consumers haven’t been sufficiently informed. It also came too late. Industry participants must provide transparency in business practices and create educational materials that spell out in clear, non-technical language how cookies work, what information is captured, and how that information is used. Perhaps even more important is to specify what isn’t captured. Some good explanations already exist and must be promoted more widely.

There’s a legitimate concern about whether a Do-Not-Track list will have the desired result. Registering for the Do-Not-Track list would raise consumer expectations for the dubious benefit of protecting privacy under the erroneous assumption that any of the data gathered is personally-identifiable. Consumers would still receive ads targeted by gross site demographics or content. Would consumers object to those ads? Would they even know the difference between a content-targeted ad and a presumably more relevant cookie-targeted ad? As the ads served to Jane Q. Public multiply, the potential for public disappointment is huge.

The mechanics by themselves are daunting. In one potential scenario under Do-Not-Track, pop-up windows would alert consumers to tracking on sites and allow them to opt out. Gee, I wonder what percentage of the public uses the pop-up blocker in their browsers. As I browse site after site, will multiple pop-up windows appear, asking me to make choices and ruining my online experience? Will the same sites that use beneficial cookies to retain preferences be squashed when ad cookies are denied? Will rivals have to agree on data standards and share information?

What does history tell us about these kinds of government initiatives? A Do-Not-Email list was proposed by the government to help curb spam, but the FTC found it would actually do more harm than good. If spammers got their hands on the list, they would have a treasure trove of validated e-mail addresses to bombard with unwanted messages.

What about the Do-Not-Call initiative? Despite certain loopholes, such as exceptions made for recent business transactions, political communications, and nonprofits, this measure actually seems to cut back on the number of phone solicitations we receive at home during dinner time. But phone numbers are published and personally identifiable, making this more like an apples-to-zebras comparison to cookie tracking.

If government intervention is a fait accompli, it would be better to be regulated by the federal government than an assortment of states. If federal law trumps state initiatives, then at least there’s only one standard applied. The early efforts at spam legislation were quite confusing with state-by-state guidelines that made compliance almost impossible for any program with scale.

There’s no question that informed consumer choice and control needs to be preserved, but who’s best suited to provide that option? Is it the role of government or industry to provide that? The NAI and the big behavioral targeting players have made a start with the centralized opt-out list and opt-out policies on their individual sites, but if people don’t know the lists and policies are there, they can’t make informed decisions.

Consumer education remains the major hurdle. All parties concerned must continue the discussion. The voices of industry insiders and experts must be heard long before regulations or laws are adopted. To make the case for self-regulation, we must first prove that we’re willing to take the steps and make the changes necessary to do so.