Saturday, January 26, 2013

The "Do Not Track" Debate


According to Infinitive, a digital consulting firm in Virginia, the debate about online consumer privacy and “Do Not Track” will be a hot topic in 2013.[i] What is meant by Do Not Track? Who is in favor of it? Who is against it? This blog post will answer these questions and explore the issue in more detail.

What does “Do Not Track” mean?
Do Not Track (DNT) is “a privacy preference that users can set in their web browsers.”[ii] There is still some disagreement about what enabling DNT really means. Some say it refers to users indicating they would not “like to see ads tailored to them by companies that track their online browsing histories,” while others say it refers to users not wanting “their online activities tracked, recorded, analyzed and stored for marketing purposes.”[iii]

A Brief History of the Debate
The DNT debate began in 2010 when the Federal Trade Commission issued a report on consumers’ online privacy. Since then, lawmakers have proposed several online privacy bills in Congress. The DNT debate really heated up when Microsoft decided to make DNT the default option on Internet Explorer 10 last year. Other browsers, on the other hand, such as Safari, Firefox, and Chrome, offer the feature, but users must enable it. It is important to note that even if consumers decide to enable the DNT feature, not all companies will respect that choice. In fact, some companies have said they will “ignore Microsoft’s DNT signal on the ground that it represents Microsoft’s choice for the browser rather than the affirmative choice of the user.”[iv] Last year, Twitter made headlines when the social site announced it would no longer collect data on users who wish not to be tracked.   

Those in Favor of DNT
Privacy advocates, lawmakers, the FTC, and the White House are among those who favor DNT. According to supporters, “the problem with third-party data collectors is that you never really know who they are or what info of yours they have (or even how much) and so [DNT] would theoretically permit internet users to increase the amount of control they have when it comes to sharing their information…by allowing internet users to tell these companies, ‘Hey you, get offa my cloud.’[v]



Those Against DNT
The advertising industry is one of the biggest opponents of DNT. “Advertising companies would not be allowed to tailor ads for Do Not Track users with information they gather by following them across multiple sites,”[vi] and, as a result, their revenue would most likely decrease. Smaller advertisers are especially concerned, maintaining that DNT will not have a huge effect on large companies such as Google and Yahoo. “Even with Do Not Track turned on,” smaller advertisers say, “those giants will still be able to track users’ behavior on their own sites – just not across the rest of the web.”[vii] Some industry associations have created plans, such as the Direct Marketing Association’s Data Driven Marketing Institute, to educate the public, including consumers and Congress, on how data collection is beneficial to our economy. 


Some opponents say that some free-content websites may suffer, too. After all, “consumer data,” according to marketers, “is the fuel that powers the Internet, driving ads that support free content and e-mail services, search engines and social networks.”[viii] So, if too many people were to enable the DNT feature, then free-content websites that rely on ad revenues to operate may charge subscription fees or be forced offline.



[i] “13 Trends Shaping Digital Analytics in 2013.” December 27, 2012. Eye on Analytics. Available online: http://analytics.infinitive.com/2012/12/27/13-trends-shaping-digital-analytics-in-2013/
[ii] “Twitter Supports ‘Do Not Track’.” Twitter Help Center. https://support.twitter.com/articles/20169453-twitter-supports-do-not-track
[iii] Singer, Natasha. September 15, 2012. “When the Privacy Button Is Already Pressed.” New York Times. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/technology/in-microsofts-new-browser-the-privacy-light-is-already-on.html?pagewanted=all
[iv] Edwards, Jim. October 10, 2012. “How Microsoft’s Do Not Track Plan Will Guarantee that All Users Are Tracked.” Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/microsofts-do-not-track-plan-for-ie10-2012-10
[v] Bowling, Drew. July 5, 2012. “Does Anyone Actually Agree on What Do Not Track Means?” WebProNews. Available online: http://www.webpronews.com/does-anyone-actually-agree-on-what-do-not-track-means-2012-07 
[vi] Cohn, Julie. October 8, 2012. “How ‘Do Not Track’ May Hurt Businesses.” Entrepreneur. Available online: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/224611#
[vii] Goldman, David. November 30, 2012. “Do Not Track is dying.” CNN Money. Available online: http://money.cnn.com/2012/11/30/technology/do-not-track/index.html 
[viii] Singer, Natasha. September 15, 2012. “When the Privacy Button Is Already Pressed.” New York Times. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/technology/in-microsofts-new-browser-the-privacy-light-is-already-on.html?pagewanted=all