Do-Not-Track: A bigger threat

The recent and ill-informed calls for a national “do not track” list, a theoretical mechanism to stop online data collection, might resonate with the public because of the apparent resemblance to the National Do Not Call Registry. But the two are similar in name only. A do-not-track list would be an irresponsible policy, leading to a degraded online experience for consumers. Indeed, in the guise of privacy, such a list would require the creation of a much more invasive solution than we have today—one filled with its own pitfalls.

Simplistic comparisons between do-not-call and do-not-track miss the technical complications inherent in the latter. The Internet is a series of interconnected websites that work together to bring us the personalized web surfing experience to which we have grown accustomed. When we visit our favorite news site, we are actually viewing custom-tailored content from multiple sources. For example, the lead story may be a live feed from the AP, our local weather is provided courtesy of Weather.com and our stock ticker is powered by Dow Jones data. This content personalization provides immense value to consumers, yet requires a certain level of “tracking” by third parties in order to deliver us the rich, relevant and personalized web surfing experience we have come to expect. Turning off this interconnectivity blocks the functionality of the Internet for consumers and breaks the economic model, which depends on advertising.

Assume for a moment some of the technical issues could be solved, perhaps by creating a “universal opt-out cookie” that can be read by websites that did not issue it or a solution based on browsers, the applications used to access the web (both capabilities which do not exist in the architecture of the Internet today). The result in either case would be a diminished consumer experience. Those who signed up for a do-not-track registry would find they’d been sold a bill of goods, as they will instantly become the targets of cheap and irrelevant advertising—also known as spam—since they would no longer be participating in the “value exchange” between consumers and publishers, wherein consumers share a limited amount of non-personally identifiable information in exchange for more relevant content from publishers. Furthermore, sites could all be forced to move to a paid subscription model for some consumers, charging only those who opt out for the same content that everyone else would receive for free. This is very different from the net positive experience you get when you add yourself to the do-not-call list.

Let’s be clear. The interactive industry strongly supports consumer privacy and meaningful choice. The industry has built a strong self-regulatory program (www.iab.net/self-reg) that empowers consumers to exercise control over their information online (www.iab.net/privacymatters). But when so-called privacy advocates call for a do-not-track list what they’re really calling for is very likely more tracking and certainly less consumer control of the content they receive. Consumers would actually have to give up anonymity in order to register for the service. To be effective, the list must be available to the whole online advertising ecosystem, effectively turning those who do not want to be “tracked” into a valuable “targeting segment” for unscrupulous marketers. And who will protect consumers who put their personally identifiable information on this multimillion-person registry, the government?

Sullivan leads the IAB West Coast Office and has served as an active member of IAB committees and working groups since 2005. His career in online advertising technology organizations began in the late 1990s and he has since earned an industry-wide reputation for his work on standards, guidelines, and related data quality issues for digital media.