Anyone who knows me well also knows that I am passionate about a core set of issues that relate to the web. One of those is the need for the web to remain free, open, and unregulated by the federal government. Another is the "Do Not Track" legislation that has been getting volleyed in Congress for the past several years.
What is Do Not Track?
Similar to a "Do Not Call" list for telemarketers, Do Not Track (DNT) legislation would allow consumers to opt out of having their online activity tracked with a simple click of a mouse. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D - West Virginia) introduced the bill in 2011 and since that time, it has essentially stalled. But Senator Rockefeller is back at it, reintroducing the bill this past month. And being that Senator Rockefeller has already announced that he is not seeking re-election in 2014, you can be assured that going out with a win is a priority. The bill is being co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D - Connecticut)
Is all this "Do Not Track" talk new?
No. The Ad Choices program has been around for years. According to their site:
The AdChoices Icon (also known as the "Advertising Option Icon") is a sign for consumer information and control for interest-based advertising (which is also referred to as “online behavioral advertising”). When you see the AdChoices Icon on a Web page or near a Web banner, it lets you know that information used to infer your interests is being gathered or used to improve the ads you see. By clicking on the AdChoices Icon, you learn about how interest-based ads are delivered to you. More importantly, the AdChoices Icon gives you the ability control whether you receive interest-based advertising and from which companies.
Lou Mastria, executive director of the Digital Advertising Alliance, which manages the Ad Choices program, said it best: “We serve the ad choices icon a trillion times a month. It’s pretty hard to say it’s not working.” In short, consumers have had the ability for years to opt-out of internet-based advertising.
Why Do Not Track is bad
There are a variety of reasons why I feel DNT is bad, but I want to focus on the advertising revenue discussion. Think of some of your favorites websites. Facebook, The Onion, Drudge Report, ESPN, YouTube - nearly all of our favorite sites on the web are without a paywall. How can they afford to do that? By tracking user behavior and serving up relevant ad units to users. Are you a 25-year old male who likes college basketball? Expect to see some ads from the NCAA team apparel store next time you're on BuzzFeed. A 48-year old mother of two who stays at home? Redbook.com is going to hit you up with with Expedia ads based on your online vacation planning activity. Is this annoying? Possibly to some, but the alternative is for mom to instead get served up ads about Busch Light and Old Spice. Think about the total online experience. Without those highly targeted ads, sites are no longer free, advertisers can no longer target users effectively, on the online experience as we know it is a very different one than what we've grown used to. “If we do away with this relevant advertising, we are going to make the Internet less diverse, less economically successful, and frankly, less interesting,” says Mike Zaneis, the general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry group.
What can you do?
We've become a society that is hyper-protective of our privacy, and justifiably so. Quite honestly, there are a lot of online creepers, phishing scams, viruses, etc. that should make us leary of the online experience. However, advertisers are not out to get your bank account number or hack into your investment porfolio. They simply want to deliver timely, relevant content to you like any other advertsing platform. Implementing DNT legislation could have effects far greater than Senators Rockefeller, Blumenthal, and others intend. If you agree, drop a note to your elected officials telling them that DNT is a bad idea. And in the meantime, keep surfing, keep building that cookie base, and enjoy the free access to millions of sites that highly targeted advertising has afforded you.