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Do Not Ignore “Do Not Track”

by Niki Fielding

Last Thursday I attended a Direct Marketing Club of New York (DMCNY) meeting and listened to Peter Horan, a board member of the Internet Advertising Bureau, talk about the Do Not Track legislation.  Before his presentation, I thought I clearly understood the issues and risks of the proposed legislation, crafted to enable consumers to opt out of having their online activities tracked by advertisers.

After his talk, I had a better understanding of why the IAB and other marketing associations are against the legislation.  But it prompted me to explore the opposing opinions a little further and to share what I learned.

The IAB’s position, which is supported by other marketing groups, is that Do Not Track, as written, will seriously hobble, if not cripple, the growing online advertising industry.  During his presentation, Peter spoke of the ad industry’s concerns about the association of Do Not Track with Do Not Call.  With Do Not Call, consumers’ privacy was protected in as much as they could opt-out via a national registry, thereby curtailing annoying calls from telemarketers.  While politicians talk about protecting consumers’ privacy with Do Not Track, the IAB says it’s not so much about their actual privacy, at least as the technology is being used now, but rather the allusion of privacy which the bill seeks to protect.  This is because, for the most part, while data about individual behaviors are collected, they don’t follow the “person” into the real world, they simply follow him online.  This enables an advertiser to put up ads as signposts along the way, suggesting themselves as options based on where the person had been online previously.   As Peter said, telling consumers you’re going to protect them in tough times costs very little and lets politicians tell their constituents that they are working hard on their behalf.

The proposed bill would enable consumers to opt out of this type of behavioral tracking, so that every search would be new, every interaction with an ad would be fresh, and, theoretically, the products he/she is seeking could take longer to find.  As advertisers see it, behavioral targeting (which cookies facilitate) speeds things up and guides the consumer to solutions he/she is seeking.

At the end of the day, the IAB is lobbying for better self-regulation by advertisers.  For more on the Internet Advertising Bureau’s view of Do Not Track, visit its website.

As the government sees it, these ads infringe on consumers’ privacy.  Data about a searcher’s behavior is being gathered, processed, and spun back out in the form of suggestions — ads that keep appearing, as if by magic, as if they were reading the consumers’ mind — because they kind of are, anticipating what is sought by what was viewed.  For an objective overview of Do Not Track, read this news story posted in December 2010 on CNet.

On the other side of the fence, there are those who counter that while Do Not Track will affect advertisers, the impact will be minimal.  For example, according to Jonathan Mayer in his well written post for The Center for Internet and Society (CIS), housed at Stanford Law School, only a small fraction (4%) of the online ad industry will potentially be affected, and only a fraction of that fraction will actually be affected depending on how consumer opt-outs are handled.  As he shares, most other forms of online advertising won’t be hurt by Do Not Track.

As an educated consumer, I don’t mind when advertisers market to me what they perceive I want based on my searching behavior, provided I remain an anonymous persona traversing the Web and their efforts to market to me are limited to the Web where my searching occurs.  I don’t want my searches to become intimately connected to my actual self and follow me offline. To me, this is akin to a Twitter follower deciding we’re best friends and showing up on my doorstep.

As a marketer, I’ve always preferred unintrusive marketing — that’s why I founded a company that helps its clients to be found (search and social) rather than chasing after them when they’re “not in the mood.”  But as technology gets smarter, what’s wrong with trying to understand what someone may be looking for and offering your product as a solution based on how that anonymous consumer behaves?  Perhaps if the technology were more suave, like a sophisticated Cary Grant instead of  a gawky teenager punching the arm of the girl he wants to date, we’d have fewer problems with behavioral targeting because the tools were “better behaved.”

In short, it seems this legislation isn’t very threatening to most of the advertising industry, at least, not the better tested avenues.  It may, however, limit some of the advanced technology solutions that could ultimately making advertising more relevant to consumers and therefore more palatable to all.

For now, if you care about privacy, marketing and the Internet as we know it, do yourself a favor and learn more about Do Not Track as well as the privacy options already available today.

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2 Responses to "Do Not Ignore “Do Not Track”"

  • Hamlet, Herndon, VA
    February 17, 2011 - 11:35 Reply

    Niki – thanks for sharing your perspective after attending the DMCNY meeting. I have been following this topic with great interest because of my own conflicting perspective, which is quite similar to yours. As a marketing professional I seek and invite any and all enablers that enhance a business client’s opportunity to market/sell their product/s as long as they are unintrusive and somewhat discrete. As a consumer, I am not convinced that my anonymity will be protected thus I wonder who else out there is data mining and becomes privy to my personal search habits and preferences? In other words, if the marketing and unsolicited ads/banners are from legitimate companies with product/s I may have an interest in, then I am perfectly okay with it but the question is how will unscrupulous individuals tap into the same information and what could they do with it? Bottom line, perhaps the companies advocating the use of these technological tools have good and honorable intentions but unfortunately, in this day and age of outsourcing much of the web analytics, will self-regulation effectively “police” the brilliant young minds (who will undoubtedly be the ones obtaining and analyzing private browsing habits) to protect consumers from their technical genius being put to work on less than desirable endeavors above and beyond the request of their business clients?
    Hamlet

  • Niki Fielding
    February 18, 2011 - 12:42 Reply

    Thanks Hamlet for your thoughts on the issues and challenges surrounding Do Not Track and the problems it seeks to correct or eliminate. As I researched the topic I found it is much more complicated than I originally thought. Our values really come into play on this as does the whole issue of trust: who to trust, why to trust, is it wise to trust, and what can be done to build trust.

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