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Understanding 'Do Not Track': Truth and Consequences

A digital media expert responds to last week's Re/code story.


Last week, Re/code published a report called “How ‘Do Not Track’ Ended Up Going Nowhere,” which included a number of what I consider to be misleading points from industry voices. Importantly, this column came at a time when consumers are choosing to boycott all advertising by installing ad-blocking software. Research indicates that the increased usage of ad blockers is due to a lack of trust driven by everything from relentless tracking and (more likely) the deteriorating experience and types of ads that often come with it.

Make no mistake, this challenge started with publishers. Although many people in the ad tech world are finally apologizing for their hand in the skyrocketing ad-blocking rates, joining our “Advertising 2.0: A Call to Think,” rather than a call to arms, it’s critical to clear up some misinformation about Do Not Track.

While I understand that not everyone may agree with DNT as a policy, I will attempt to clarify what I feel was misleading in the article:

    • The Re/code headline indicated that DNT “failed to go anywhere.” In reality, it was recently published as a completed standard by the cross-industry international standards body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). And it represents one of the first interesting tactics with the potential to reduce ad blocking. This is an important point because DNT is all about giving consumers more choices and transparency about which companies can collect and use data about their browsing history. One reason we’re seeing the rise of ad-blocking software is that consumers don’t feel that they have control over their online experiences.
    • There is no carve-out exception for big companies. The W3C standard would apply equally to big and small players — anyone operating as a third party on a webpage or app. When a consumer is on a random cooking blog, any other third-party tracker, including those as large as Google and Facebook, would be prohibited from collecting and using that consumer’s data. Just as importantly, the standard would prevent third parties from tailoring ads based on data they already know about you. And for good reason. Most consumers don’t expect companies to be collecting or using data about them behind the scenes for non-transparent reasons. In the published standard, if the consumer didn’t intend to interact with that company, big or small, then the company cannot track.
    • Why should DNT treat first parties and third parties differently? Today, consumers can choose to visit an array of websites and apps offering news, entertainment and other content experiences. Consumers generally expect websites to collect data about their visits so the website can make improvements, ease usage, personalize or make content recommendations. Websites that violate a consumer’s trust risk losing that consumer altogether, as they can choose not to visit again. But there are few effective mechanisms to exercise this same kind of control over third-party data collection, since third parties aren’t, by their very definition, known to consumers.The Federal Trade Commission, in its 2012 privacy report entitled “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change,” noted that choice is not needed for “practices that are consistent with the transaction or the company’s relationship with the consumer.” The report notes internal operations and first-party marketing as acceptable uses of data. Conversely, the FTC advocated that DNT could be a useful tool for consumers who wanted to opt out of “behavioral tracking” conducted by third parties. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer advocacy group for those unfamiliar (ahem, John Legere), created Privacy Badger, an extension that allows first parties to collect data while blocking third parties.
    • Do Not Call and Do Not Track are apples and oranges. They get mixed up due to the naming convention, but Do Not Call is a managed registration list. Microsoft originally tried to do something like this for digital privacy. Unfortunately, lists are extremely hard to maintain, given the dynamic Internet. Do Not Track is elegant because it’s a simple, persistent way for a consumer to express a preference simultaneously to all the entities and resources involved in a webpage and, importantly, the local regulation or self-regulation can develop the policy from there.

Speaking of self-regulation, when the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) dropped out of the W3C process, it promised to develop its own DNT standard. It also made the same promise at the White House in 2012. As we’ve written before, it’s time for industry to step up. Tens of millions of consumers have enabled DNT in their browsers. Now, more and more consumers are blocking ads altogether. It’s inexcusable at this point that the industry hasn’t made its self-regulatory principles apply to users with the DNT signal turned on.

There is an escalating technology war between consumers and companies that want to track them across websites, apps and devices.

There is an escalating technology war between consumers and companies that want to track them across websites, apps and devices. And I think we’ve seen plenty of evidence proving that this is an arms race that can’t be won. We’re turning the Internet into a battle zone where clickbait, bottom feeders, bots and, ultimately, no sustainable advertising model may be the norm. We need to give consumers an easy, persistent way to express their choice.

Premium content and experiences cannot thrive in an environment where consumer trust is at an all-time low. Confusion of the facts will only lead to protection of incumbent interests, which are clearly failing. Instead, we need more transparent fact-based collaboration across the industry like this Thursday’s PrivacyCon, hosted by the FTC, which brings together thought leaders across the industry. No business has ever succeeded long term without meeting consumer demands. So, instead of fighting consumers, let’s give them what they want: More transparency and better controls.

Jason Kint is the CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade association that exclusively serves the diverse needs of digital content companies that manage direct, trusted relationships with consumers and marketers. A 20-year veteran of the digital media industry, he previously led the evolution of CBS Sports into a multi-platform brand offering premier broadcast, online and mobile sports content as SVP and general manager of CBS Interactive’s Sports Division. Reach him @jason_kint.

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