Privacy concerns regarding information disseminated and collected over the Internet is nothing new, but the latest fight to develop a clear stance on Do Not Track (DNT) preferences could prove costly to both advertisers and consumers. Traditionally, the Internet business model is based on companies and third-party advertisers tracking your online behavior – following your mouseclicks and browsing history in exchange for open access to webpages and their services. This online activity is extremely valuable because advertisers can analyze traffic and browsing patterns, creating more robust content and targeting potential customers. The customization is highly appealing to users who prefer an individualized Internet experience, and allows smaller companies access to potential consumers based on a demonstrated preference for similar products or services. Most importantly, third-party advertising on webpages facilitates free information sharing, as the advertisers subsidize the information’s cost.
The flipside of this customization is concern over how the behavioral data is used: With whom is it shared? Can users have any real say in what happens to their information? What is the information’s shelf life? What, if any, are the limitations on the information’s use? In response to privacy advocate concerns and consumer feedback, the advertising industry began developing sites like www.allaboutads.info, where users could opt out of industry tracking. Heeding the call, browsing services have developed DNT options allowing the user to be online without their activities being recorded. Thus, users are able to control what information, if any, is seen and collected at a browser level, as opposed to voluntary opt-out sites which are not always respected by the advertising industry.
DNT options have come under increased scrutiny in the last year. A 2011 version of Mozilla Firefox gave users a clear opt-out feature, and this year, industry groups like the Digital Advertising Association (DAA) seemed to concede to popular demand, pledging to honor voluntarily opt-out settings. In light of Microsoft’s decision to make the DNT opt-out the default setting in Internet Explorer 10, the DAA has seemingly backpedaled, and condemned Microsoft’s default DNT setting, urging its members to ignore the setting. In October, Internet policy group the World Wide Web Conference (W3C)’s was unable to reach a global consensus on DNT requirements, with it being clear that privacy advocates and advertising insiders were far from common ground. If W3C cannot develop global standards before it disbands at year’s end, industry leaders predict the US will develop its own DNT legislation. It is difficult to predict if US legislation would take a more protectionist slant like current European policy, or afford companies and third-parties considerable leeway with respect to collecting information even after a DNT opt-out has been selected by a user.
Without clear guidance regarding DNT standards and increased consumer understanding of DNT options and costs, both advertisers and privacy advocates predict Doomsday scenarios. Advertisers warn consumers do not understand the value of tracked behavior, and restricting its access and use will force companies to pass the costs on to consumers, in the form of subscription-based or pay-for-play websites. Privacy advocates take varying stances on the economic impact of DNT options, but underline the importance of transparency in business practices and its impact on customer loyalty. Could embracing DNT preferences garner new customer appreciation for marketers, or will disagreements on DNT definitions, limitations and obligations create costly consequences to Internet accessibility?
More information on W3C can be found here.