Four reasons why Do Not Track turned into Do Not Trust

It's hard to agree on a privacy standard when neither side can agree about the definition of four common English words.

It’s gotten ugly out there, folks.

It’s been about a year and a half since the FTC stopped waffling about online tracking legislation, locked privacy advocates and the online advertising industry into a room together, and said “work out your differences.” 

The idea was to come up with a Do Not Track standard that everyone, privacy nerds and advertisers alike, could live with. Well, guess what, privacy fans? It hasn’t worked out. And the odds of it working out now are roughly the same as Florida Gulf Coast University winning the NCAA Final Four.

Why is that, you might ask? Well there are several reasons, but I think they all boil down to this: The ad industry and its various cohorts never had any intention of letting it work out. And why would they? There’s nothing in it for them. In fact, the only motivation ad/trackers had was the threat of legislation that might end up being worse than anything they and the geeks could work out. But the odds of anything with any teeth passing through both houses of Congress at this point are pretty slim.

From my vantage point, deep in the bleacher seats, the ad industry and its cohorts seemed to be interested in drawing the process out for as long as possible so they could say “heck, we tried and it’s impossible, now leave us alone.”

Why do I say that? Consider how the online ad/tracking industry has attempted to redefine the English language, and you can see how Do Not Track has morphed into Do Not Trust.

1. Redefining “track”

Bill Clinton took verbal parsing to a new level when he responded to the Lewinsky grand jury, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is,’ is.” For the last four years the ad industry has been attempting to do the same thing with the word “track.”

When most humans think of Web tracking, they probably think of someone or something recording what they do as they surf from site to site on the Net. But when the online ad industry says “track” they really mean “target ads based on your Web surfing history.”

So when an ad network says you can opt out of tracking, they actually mean “you can elect to not see targeted ads, but we’ll still collect all of that information about you so we can add it to your profile.”

There may be good reasons why some data should be collected; for example, advertisers and publishers need to know which ads have already been displayed in your browser and which ones you may have already clicked on. Beyond that, though, the good reasons start to run out. That data is being collected for other reasons, which I’ll get to shortly.

2. Redefining “anonymity”

Because tracking data is collected anonymously, ad networks can’t identify you or match your Web history to a real identity, says the ad industry. So there’s nothing to worry about, right? Well, not exactly.

Here’s the funny thing about anonymous tracking. It isn’t always anonymous, as Stanford Researcher (and do-not-track working group member) Jonathan Mayer has demonstrated on a few occasions.

Even Evidon, whose AdChoices program attempts to provide “transparency” into the Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole world of Web trackers, acknowledges that “in certain cases, data may be combined with other sources (or personal information) to produce more detailed profiles.”

In other words, you’re anonymous – until you’re not.

3. Redefining “choice”

Ask advertisers about tracking, and you’ll encounter a fair amount of rhetoric about “enabling consumer choice.” People should be free to choose whether they want advertisers to track them, the argument goes (even though, as noted above, the current opt outs don’t do much).

The problem with that argument? Ad networks are only in favor of choice as long as consumers choose to be tracked. Otherwise not so much. Which is why they got their collective knickers in a knot when Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer 10 would ship with Do Not Track turned on by default, and vowed to simply ignore that setting.

More recently, the ad industry got its boxers in a bunch after Mozilla announced it was thinking about blocking third-party cookies – like the type used to deliver ads and track user behavior --  in an upcoming version of Firefox. Per Dan Jaffe, president of the Association of National Advertisers:

Mozilla’s initiative is extraordinarily counterproductive for consumers and business. If the company moves forward, consumers will be herded into a new browsing environment where Mozilla will make choices for them. Blocking third party cookies by default sends the false message to consumers that [online behavioral advertising] is inherently bad without providing any meaningful background knowledge describing the innumerable benefits of being served relevant ads.

In other words, the ad/tracking cartel is fine with user choice – so long as you choose them.

4. Redefining “free”

The key argument you’ll hear about why tracking is necessary comes down to what you’re paying to read this - which is to say, nothing. Without tracking, advertisers argue, the “free” Web will cease to exist. Some ad execs have even gone so far to claim that Do Not Track “will ultimately kill free speech” by putting Web sites like the one you’re now reading out of business. Yeah, really.

Won’t someone please think of the publishers?

The real reason is of course money. Behavioral tracking enables ad networks to bid for specific types of users and thus collect more money. If your Web profile describes you as a home owner with an income exceeding $100k who recently went shopping for insurance, you might be worth .02 or .03 pennies per page view instead of .01. Who collects most of that “extra” money? Why, the ad networks, auctioneers, and the people who make tracking technology, of course.

It’s reminiscent of the RIAA arguing about how it’s really just trying to protect “the artists” from online pirates, while stiffing actual artists out of their online royalties.

Of course, the free Web isn’t free. For one thing, you or your employer are paying a lot of money for that Internet connection. You may have even upgraded your service to get more bandwidth and a faster connection. And how is that bandwidth being used? To load dozens -- and in some cases hundreds -- of third-party tracking cookies you didn’t ask for and didn’t expect, but slow down your surfing considerably.

More important, you are paying for the Web with your data. Which would still be OK, if the tradeoffs were made absolutely clear and consumers really had a say in the matter. Right now, we don’t. Unless you’ve installed Abine’s DoNotTrackMe or Ghostery (and then opted out), you’re being tracked – right now, right here, on this site. It is the way of the Web, circa 2013.

But the trade-offs are much greater than you might imagine. Online profiling isn’t just about delivering “more interesting” ads and collecting more pennies for them; it’s much bigger and more insidious than that.

More on that in a future post.

See also: Web trackers are totally out of control.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blogeSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld onTwitter and Facebook.

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