A friend of mine, Jim Ericson, who is the editorial director for Information Management magazine, wrote a wry piece a few weeks ago titled, “Google and Other Stalkers.” It described his “split existence": a highly visible life online as a writer about IT issues; and another, as private citizen, that he is trying to maintain. The latter, he says, is becoming less private every day as the Internet—and the data tracking it allows—expands to just about every device he interacts with on a daily basis. Many of us can relate to Jim’s quandary.
As Jim writes, “In real life I am employed to learn and report on several topics of data and information management. My private life, equally real, is my own business - though the gods of algorithms keep trying to help me out with that… At the risk of stating the obvious, I’ll start by blaming Google’s AdSense and other online services that follow you around like needful pets. I like pets, just not everywhere I go.”
And, according to a story last week in the New York Times, online advertisers are working overtime to ensure that your “needful pets” will always be by your side offering you a wide range of targeted advertising, whether you want them under foot or not. The Times story outlines the aggressive campaign launched last month by advertising industry groups such as the Association of National Advertisers, Digital Advertising Alliance, and the Direct Marketing Association, which are trying hard to defang the “do not track” movement which is intended to give consumers increased control over who can track them online and what data the trackers are able to acquire.
The industry trade groups contend that the decision of browser providers like Microsoft and Mozilla to default browser settings to “do not track” instead of forcing consumers to deliberately select the “do not track” option, will destroy the Internet as we know it. For instance, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) sent an open letter to Microsoft a few weeks ago condemning its decision to make “do not track” the default setting in Internet Explorer 10. The over-wrought letter makes for entertaining reading.
In the letter, the ANA states that Microsoft’s move will “undercut the effectiveness of our members’ advertising and, as a result, drastically damage the online experience by reducing the Internet content and offerings that such advertising supports. This result will harm consumers, hurt competition, and undermine American innovation and leadership in the Internet economy.”
Microsoft’s action, the letter goes on to state, “has been uniformly met with outrage, opposition, and declarations that Microsoft’s action is wrong. The entire media ecosystem has condemned this action.”
Further, “Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Browser currently has a 43 percent market share in the United States. By setting the Internet Explorer browser to block data collection, Microsoft’s action could potentially eliminate the ability to collect web viewing data of up to 43 percent of the browsers used by Americans.”
The ANA claims that without this information, consumers would have to start paying for content that they now get for free, which would “significantly reduce the diversity of Internet offerings and potentially cheat society of the robust offerings that are currently available.”
Elsewhere, the Direct Marketing Association says, in support of tracking users online, that, “Consumers love getting what they want—information, products, benefits, upgrades—when they want it… There is no evidence that data-driven marketing harms consumers in any way.”
The ANA letter was signed by a host of companies, including Adobe, Allstate Insurance, American Express, AT&T, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, Dell, IBM, Intel, Fidelity Investments, Ford, GE, General Mills, GM, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Liberty Mutual, McDonald's, MillerCoors, Motorola, Nestlé USA, PulteGroup, Procter & Gamble, Siemens, Subway, Toyota, Unilever, Verizon, VISA and WalMart.
It’s very nice of the ANA to point out the companies who think that information about your Web viewing habits is rightfully theirs. Especially since the ANA and other industry groups are now saying that “it would not require members to honor the forthcoming [Microsoft] browser’s don’t-track-me signals.”
That decision will no doubt go over well with users of IE 10 who really don’t want to be tracked. Somehow I don't think those folks are going to be blaming Microsoft for violating their do not track wishes.
It should be said that websites currently have no legal obligation to honor browser do not track requests. The European Union, however, is thinking hard about changing that situation, at least for EU residents. Right now, EU companies with an online presence need to get user consent to install cookies. It isn't much of a leap to require do-not-track requests be honored.
What the advertising industry says it wants in exchange for them voluntary honoring users' do-not-track requests, the Times reports, is for online users to have to choose to set their browsers to “do not track” as well as a requirement that when they do change their browser to that setting, they automatically get a warning message telling about “the potential effects of eschewing tailored ads.” In effect, it wants a pet that follows you around the Internet that constantly barks at you whenever you don’t feed it your browsing data.
Of course, if the members ANA and other advertising industry groups are truly serious, they should state unequivocally that they will completely abandon all advertising on the Internet if Microsoft's and other browsers insist on making do not track the default setting.
I can hardly wait for that announcement.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.