Don’t track me, bro: Ad industry whines while privacy wonks waffle

Microsoft's plan to make Do Not Track the default in IE10 has been killed dead by the ad industry. Anybody surprised?

It seems Microsoft’s decision to turn on the Do Not Track feature in its upcoming Internet Explorer 10 browser by default did not sit well with the online tracking advertising community.

At first, the ad trackers whined really loudly. Then they threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue. When those things didn’t work, they decided to take their Do Not Track toys and go home.

As of today, the folks building the Do Not Track spec the ad industry and FTC are working to create decided to exclude browsers that have Do Not Track (DNT) turned on by default. The new proposed language is here: "An ordinary user agent MUST NOT send a Tracking Preference signal without a user's explicit consent."

That means that any browser like IE10 will not be compliant with that spec, and thus its DNT settings will be ignored by the servers dishing out those ads and tracking cookies. Game over. That sound you hear is the fat lady gargling.

The DNT spec is being drafted by three highly respected privacy wonks – Peter Eckersley of the EFF, Jonathan Mayer of Stanford University, and Tom Lowenthal of Mozilla. But it’s pretty clear the ad industry is driving the bus here by refusing to even consider DNT as a default.

To recap the ad industry’s point of view here, if I may: Setting a browser to block tracking by default takes the choice away from consumers. Setting a browser to allow tracking by default doesn’t. That make sense to anyone else out there?

Now the proposed spec also offers a couple of options to be considered. One is that users can access Do Not Track options via some kind of menu option (the state of affairs as it exists today in the major browsers). The other option is that users are prompted the first time they use the browser to make a choice whether they want to be tracked or not.

Of the two, the latter is by far the more preferable. It is the only true way to obtain explicit consent for tracking. But I’d be shocked if the ad industry went along with that, either. Why? Because they know that a lot of people – maybe not a majority, but a large number – would say ‘Don’t track me, bro.’

In fact, according to a survey by Omnicom Media Group, more than 90 percent of Internet users know they are being tracked and would consider using a DNT feature. More than half say they want complete control over what’s being tracked.

do not track - ensighten infographic - 600p.png

(The folks at Ensighten, who make tag management systems for enterprises to help them comply with privacy requirements, have worked up a wicked cool infographic showing the Do Not Track story from all perspectives. You can view the whole schmear here.)

The ad industry is doing everything it can to look like it is playing along with the FTC’s desire to assuage concerns about online tracking, while putting as many barriers in front of consumers as they possibly can.

Whenever I write about Do Not Track (and I’m usually strongly in favor of that notion) I hear from sources in the online ad community who feel very strongly that I am advocating the demise of sites like ITworld and its ilk, if not the entire “free” Internet, by destroying the advertising model these sites rely on. (Though they apparently don’t feel strongly enough to attach their names to any of these statements.)

So I have a question for the ad guys in the audience. Let’s say a miracle happens and it’s suddenly easy for tens of millions of Netizens to say they don’t want their movements tracked across the Web by 800+ companies they’ve never heard of. Let’s say it’s even a majority of the people who go online.

What are you going to do – stop advertising on the Web? Are you going to take the $32 billion you spent last year on Internet ads and pour them into bus benches and billboards? I don’t think so. But you will pour more money into smart TVs and smart phones, where the tracking battles have yet to be fought.

This is why it’s important to set DNT straight now – and give consumers the right to Just Say No.

There’s another option, of course. Split the Internet into free and paid versions. Offer an ad-supported version where tracking is explicit and the surfing is free, and an option where privacy is guaranteed for a fee. Will people actually pay for stuff they’re used to getting for free? I don’t know.

But the fact is, we’re not getting this stuff for free. We are paying for it with our data. The ultimate price for that is something no one can put a dollar figure on.

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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