PhotoTo be tracked, or not to be tracked? That is the question which privacy and advertising groups have debated since the Internet went public.

This week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), along with the privacy company Disconnect and a “coalition of Internet companies” proposed a new Do Not Track, or DNT, standard for web browsing.

The EFF's press release said that this new standard, “coupled with privacy software, will better protect users from sites that try to secretly follow and record their Internet activity, and incentivize advertisers and data collection companies to respect a user’s choice not to be tracked online.”

Companies against DNT options

As its name suggests, the Do Not Track project seeks to give users the option to go online without having every website they visit monitored and recorded, or “tracked.” Though popular with everyday Internet users – the potential trackees – Do Not Track efforts tend to generate less enthusiasm among potential trackers.

Indeed, most companies go out of their way to avoid offering Do Not Track options at all. In April 2014, for example, Yahoo updated its privacy policy to say that henceforth, “web browser Do Not Track settings will no longer be enabled on Yahoo.” Google Chrome's “Do Not Track” help page, last updated in October 2012, says that “At this time, most web services, including Google's, do not alter their behavior or change their services upon receiving Do Not Track requests.”

In June 2014 the Digital Advertising Alliance, an advertisers' trade organization, went so far as to urge Internet standards organizations to abandon do-not-track efforts altogether, and especially criticized companies such as Microsoft, which automatically turned on do-not-track signals for certain Internet Explorer users, on the grounds that default DNT settings might not accurately reflect users' desires to be tracked.

Full stop

As industry consultant Alan Chapell said: “There’s no mechanism for anyone in the digital media ecosystem to trust any DNT signal they receive. As a result, the entire framework is open to question. In any other group, this issue would result in a full stop until the questions are addressed.”

So, Reader: if you're worried that Microsoft or some other nefarious entity is secretly not-tracking you when you'd prefer it monitor and record your every online activity, you can take courage from knowing organizations such as the Digital Advertising Alliance have your back.

If, on the other hand, you'd rather not be tracked, you're arguably better represented by pro-Do Not Track groups such as the EFF. And yet, even privacy advocates admit that the current Do Not Track status quo does cause some legitimate problems for advertisers (which is exactly why the EFF is proposing a new tracking standard).

Advertising legitimacy 

Advertising is not inherently bad. Indeed, where free-to-the-consumer media is concerned, advertising is downright necessary: if a website, television channel, or other media provider lets viewers see its content for free, it needs advertising to pay for producing and distributing that content and for paying the taxes that not-for-profit advocacy groups don't pay. 

That's how TV networks operated, in the days before cable and other forms of pay television: viewers paid nothing to watch a program, but advertisers paid to air commercials during the program breaks.

Of course, the advertisers who made old-school TV commercials didn't know exactly who would see their ads, though they could make some educated guesses based on programming content: if someone's watching a televised NASCAR race, it's better-than-average odds that person has an interest in fast cars and car-related accessories, especially compared to the typical viewer of, say, “My Little Pony.”

But such broad interest generalizations pale in comparison to the hyper-specific data collection possible over the Internet. Instead of content-specific ads as seen on TV commercials, the Internet can allow for viewer-specific ads – especially if said viewer's online activities can be fully tracked.

Except that many Internet users object to such tracking for obvious privacy reasons. So to protect themselves, users will install ad blocking software (such as that offered by Disconnect) which can save users' privacy – at the cost of making it harder if not impossible for ad-dependent websites to make any money.

Personal data is golden

Couldn't Internet advertisers simply use content-specific ads, as TV and radio advertisers do? Sure, but they wouldn't be nearly as effective. As the Wall Street Journal noted in its report on the EFF's latest Do Not Track proposal:

Personal data is the currency of the Internet. Advertisers, especially, use it to target specific people for a particular ad based on search terms they have entered, sites they have visited, and so on—an industry worth roughly $50 billion last year.

Publishers can charge between three and seven times more for targeted ads than those placed on Web pages blindly, according to a study funded by the Digital Advertising Alliance. The Do Not Track effort has foundered because many online businesses were unwilling or unable to find another way to make money.

The Digital Advertising Alliance, you might recall, is the same group which last year urged wholesale abandonment of any Do Not Track efforts — and that study, suggesting that targeted ads generate three to seven times more money than non-targeted ads, explains why.

New proposal

Sadly for the Digital Advertising Alliance and similar groups, many Internet users who couldn't opt out of tracking responded with ad-blocking software. Thus, instead of making three to seven times as much ad money off of various viewers, publishers end up making no money at all.

So the EFF, Disconnect, and other privacy-supporting groups are offering what the Wall Street Journal calls a “Do Not Track compromise” [and the EFF dubbed it a “privacy-friendly Do Not Track policy”] allowing Internet users to avoid tracking while still making it possible for web publishers to collect ad revenue.

Here's how it would work: publishers and web companies would agree not to track users who signed on for Do Not Track. Or, “compliant entities should not collect unique identifiers such as cookies, fingerprints, or supercookies from DNT users, unless … the user has given her informed consent,” as EFF said.

Also, publishers would not retain individual visitors' browser and IP address information longer than 10 days, unless they are legally required to do otherwise.

In exchange, the publishers and websites would get to display what the Journal called “the EFF's 'seal of approval'” on their sites, privacy-policy language assuring users the site would not track them. Users with ad-blocking software would then get the option to disable the ad-blockers on that particular EFF-approved website, so that the viewer will potentially see ads (read: generate ad revenue for the website) without having to be tracked in the process. So far the proposal has no real enforcement mechanism, but would largely operate on the honor system.

Disconnect's CEO, Casey Oppenheim, said in support of the proposal that “The failure of the ad industry and privacy groups to reach a compromise on DNT has led to a viral surge in ad blocking, massive losses for Internet companies dependent on ad revenue, and increasingly malicious methods of tracking users and surfacing advertisements online. Our hope is that this new DNT approach will protect a consumer’s right to privacy and incentivize advertisers to respect user choice, paving a path that allows privacy and advertising to coexist.”

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