Do Not Track is a technology and policy proposal that enables users to opt out, by default or otherwise, of tracking by websites they do not visit, including analytics services, advertising networks, and social platforms. This is something that has caused quite some controversy in our industry, but what is the background to this story and how did it come about?
In 2007, several US consumer advocacy groups asked the Federal Trade Commission to create a Do Not Track list for online advertising; advertisers would submit their information to the FTC, which would compile a machine readable list of the domain names used by those companies to place cookies.
In January 2011, Mozilla announced that its Firefox browser would provide an opt-in Do Not Track solution. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Apple’s Safari and Operaall later added support for the header approach and Google Chrome supports Do Not Track by its official extensions.
On 1st June to this year, Microsoft announced that its new Internet Explorer 10 browser would include Do Not Track opt out BY DEFAULT. Now, it’s estimated that IE10 alone could have 25%-30% of the global browser market on release, which effectively means that potentially up to a third of online advertising revenue globally could be lost within weeks.
Why would Microsoft do this? The best guess is because of their biggest rival Google and the effect that Do Not Track would have on the search giant’s business model of advertising via a pay per click model that requires analytics … as well as ruining the algorithm that makes Google so desirable for users in the first place. Moreover it gives Internet Explorer 10 a point of difference for consumers against Chrome and Firefox, which are taking market share all the time.
Advertisers weren’t happy, naturally. Says Christopher Dawson of ZDNet in a great piece from 13th June:
“Yes, users should be able to opt out of tracking. But forcing them to opt in (which most simply won’t do) will have impacts that reach far beyond Google’s deep pockets and into the far shallower pockets of small businesses that survive and grow because of the small price most of us pay in perceived privacy. The same privacy that literally billions of people have already waived in much more substantial ways by tweeting their whereabouts, joining Facebook, checking in on Foursquare, and posting their daughter’s birthday parties on YouTube. Privacy, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.”
Moreover, there were opposing views from across the political spectrum … as legislators from across Europe and America discussed ow to best proceed, legally and ethically, with help from the World Wide Web Consortium, founded by Tim Berners-Lee to develop standards for the web.
“The standard should foresee that at the install or first use of the browser the owner should be informed of the importance of their DNT choice, told of the default setting and prompted or allowed to change that setting,” Robert Madelin, who heads the European Commission’s Information Society and Media Directorate-General
“We believe that browsers which default to Do Not Track provide consumers with better control and choice with respect to their personal information,” said Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), the co-chairs of the House privacy caucus. “We call on W3C participants to make the protection of consumer privacy a priority and support Microsoft’s announcement by endorsing a default Do Not Track setting.“
“Microsoft’s default DNT setting means Microsoft, not consumers, will be exercising choice as to what signal the browser will send,” wrote J. Thomas Rosch of the US Federal Trade Commission
Skip to this month and we have the launch of Windows 8, a key launch from the Seattle giant if ever there was one, with its new emphasis on a post-PC world lead by tablet … and Yahoo, who are part owned by Microsoft, has said it will not recognise Microsoft’s decision because it undercut an industry pledge to come up with an “opt-in” DNT feature by the end of the year.
“In our view, this degrades the experience for the majority of users ,” says Yahoo in a blog post. ” It basically means that the DNT signal from IE10 doesn’t express user intent.”
According to The Drum, ‘Yahoo has powerful support. The chief marketing officers of Procter & Gamble, Walmart, Ford, Verizon, Coca Cola, Unilever, General Electric, American Express, Kraft, and 30 other companies have signed a letter to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, complaining. The open letter from the board of the Association of National Advertisers to Steve Ballmer said 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.”’
Frankly this is a sentiment with which we can only concur. Microsoft’s heart may be in the right place with a concern for consumers, but consumer opinion will soon change when we find that DNT means our logins and passwords can’t be stored, advertising is less and less relevant and, crucially, content that was previously consumed for free has to be charged for because advertising no longer supports that business. Some popular sites might disappear altogether. Plus there are now concerns that DNT means a disproportionate balance of power towards web companies that have their own data driven environment such as Amazon or eBay. This is all if the system works at all because, according to The Guardian, “There are no laws or even industry best practices that require the companies that collect anonymous data to fund free content and deliver more relevant ads and offers to turn off the tracking”
How the US Congress, W3C and the European Commission deal with this could define the industry for years to come.