Will Do Not Track kill the 'free' Internet?

That's what some folks believe, anyway. I think that argument is wrong. Here's why.

I got some interesting reactions to my last post about Abine’s Do Not Track Plus utility. In a nutshell: Without the benefits brought by online tracking, the “free” Internet will cease to exist.

I want to address some of those concerns here, but first, let’s get one thing straight: For me and the 1 billion+ people who access the Web on a daily basis, the Internet is hardly “free.” Adding up the costs of access at home, at my office, and for various mobile devices for my family of four, I spend more than $200 a month for “free” Internet.

Yes, I understand, that money is going to ISPs, not content providers. But to me, Joe Consumer, the Internet isn’t all that much different than cable TV: I pay a certain amount each month to get mostly ad-supported content delivered to me. I don’t give a damn about how CNN or AMC or MSNBC make their money, their business models, who pays how much to whom for what, yadda yadda; all I care about is what my cable bill costs each month.

But the Internet costs much more than cable TV, and not just in terms of pure dollars. It costs me my privacy. Because Web ads know far more about me than TV commercials do. They know which other ads I’ve seen as I surf, and they know which ads I may have responded to. They also know what “channels” I’ve watched (i.e., sites I’ve visited), and depending on the ad network, they might also know my IP address, my city, the things I’ve searched for, and more. And once they collect this information, they can do anything they want with it. There are no rules.

In the ad biz this is called Behavioral Targeting. You and I know this better as Web Tracking. Now Behavioral Targeting/Web Tracking is not necessarily evil. But it’s another way I pay for online access, and it happens automatically without my prior consent.

There are a lot of moving parts to this debate, which I can’t tackle in a single blog post. But to grossly oversimplify: Advertisers and their cronies argue that a) online tracking is totally anonymous and thus not a threat, and b) without targeted advertising, the “free” Internet will go away. Privacy advocates argue that a) tracking isn’t quite as anonymous as advertisers claim, and b) consumers who don’t want their movements tracked online have a right to Just Say No.

I have a problem with the argument that, without targeted ads, the “free” Internet will dry up and blow away. For one thing, behavioral targeting accounted for only about 15 percent of all online advertising last year, per Parks Associates. That number will undoubtedly rise, largely because publishers make significantly more money for targeted ads [PDF] than they do for “run of network” ads. As every device we use gets an IP address, this type of targeting will also come to television and our phones. But an Internet without Web tracking is not an Internet without ads. If you removed behaviorally targeted ads from the InterWebs tomorrow, it would hardly be a death blow.

Another thing: How many people are likely to use a tool like Abine’s Do Not Track Plus to block Web trackers, really? What that tool primarily does is make it easy to set opt out cookies to block trackers – a practice the ad industry itself has grudgingly endorsed, and something Evidon’s Ghostery also does, though it makes you jump through more hoops. Ten percent? Twenty? I suspect a lot less. It’s a fraction of Internet users who care enough to think about it. So we’re really talking about 1 to 2 percent of all ads being affected, maybe.

Is the “Don’t track me, bro” crowd excessively paranoid? Possibly. I would argue that we don’t really know what these nearly 800 Web tracking companies know about us, because the only source we have for that information is the companies themselves. So their argument really comes down to two words: Trust us.

I’m willing to assume 90 to 95 percent of Web trackers are perfectly benign and have no interest in building a dossier of my Web behavior that can be traced back to my name and address. It’s the other 5 to 10 percent that worries me. And for that reason alone, I’d rather block than fight.

This argument isn’t over by a long shot. Look for followup posts on this topic later this week.

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: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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