Is Do Not Track dead?

A year after the FTC urged the creation of the DNT standard, it my soon be dead in the water. Who's to blame? Take a wild guess.

The Do Not Track standard may not yet be dead yet, but it's not looking too healthy at the moment. And if you’re looking for a smoking gun, it’s hard not to pin the blame on the advertising industry and its assorted minions.

This week the adsters took a couple of steps that make it seem like they’re not really serious about finding a happy compromise between their desire to collect information about Web surfers and Netizens’ desire to have control and choice over what data is collected and how it is used.

Case in point: Two days ago The Digital Advertising Alliance instructed its minions to simply ignore the Do Not Track flags set as defaults in Internet Explorer 10 because, they claim, it is a “browser manufacturer choice,” and “does not represent user choice.”

Granted, Microsoft caused some waves among privacy advocates with that move as well, mostly because it was unilateral. While all the browsers now offer some kind of DNT setting, Microsoft was the first to declare that its browser would ship with Do Not Track turned on.

As I’ve said elsewhere, though, the ad industry is being more than a bit disingenuous. Whether the browser ships with DNT turned on or off, it’s still a “browser manufacturer choice.” Their problem is they don’t agree with the choice.

The only fair solution: Have a dialog box pop up the first time you install a new browser or update an old one, asking you if you want advertisers to anonymously track your movements across the Web. That is something the W3C working group is considering. However, you don’t see a lot of folks at the DAA lobbying for this option, because they know what most people would choose.

In fact, earlier this week the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology released the results of a phone survey that asked this very question. The results: 60 percent of those asked said they would choose to keep Web sites from collecting information about their surfing habits. Another 20 percent would like them to block all ads. Only 14 percent opted to receive targeted advertisements.

What’s interesting about this survey is how few people had ever heard of Do Not Track: Only 13 percent of those called. So much of the survey had to be conducted on a hypothetical basis.

Bottom line: Most normal humans don’t understand what DNT is all about. Partly that’s because the issues are ridiculously complex, and partly because both the ad industry and privacy advocates have done a poor job of explaining them. In fact, I think there’s a lot of deliberate disinformation being peddled about it on both sides.

The second bit of evidence that the adsters are not really taking DNT very seriously? Last week, Rachel Thomas, an executive with the Direct Marketing Association, has asked the geeks attempting to cobble together a DNT standard to make an exception for “marketing.” Thomas wrote:

Marketing as a permitted use would allow the use of the data to send relevant offers to consumers through specific devices they have used. The data could not be used for other purposes, such as eligibility for employment, insurance, etc. Thus, we move to a harm consideration. Ads and offers are just offers -- users/consumers can simply not respond to those offers - there is no associated harm.

In other words, Thomas wants advertisers to be able to continue to track customers who’ve explicitly asked to not be tracked.

Unclear on the concept much?

My take on this: The ad industry doesn’t want any form of government oversight, and so they are deliberately stalling the DNT process in the hopes that a new administration will be elected into the White House and effectively scuttle all of it.

But it’s clear that people do want choice and control over the data that gets collected about them, even if they don’t understand what it is or how it works. They certainly don’t want to be fed more BS by parties with a vested interest in collecting and selling that data for a profit.

What will happen if we don’t get a real, workable DNT standard? More people will take it upon themselves to install tools like Abine’s Do Not Track Plus and simply block all data collection. They’ll adopt more ad blockers. They’ll make a choice, all on their own, and it won’t be one the ad industry will like.

Yes, I know: That will lead to the Webapocalypse. The free Internet as we know and love it today will cease to exist; nothing but tumbleweeds will blow across Websites like this one. I’ve heard that all before. that argument is no more convincing now than it was a year ago.

Or maybe it’s time for the ad industry to accept the inevitable and get serious about DNT. Make the case that targeted advertising is so much better for us that it’s worth giving up our data for it. Convince us that it’s the right thing to do, that it will solve our problems, make us sexier and leave our breath smelling minty fresh.

That is what those guys are supposed to be good at. Right?

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

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