SEMA News—March 2011
Privacy Advocates Deal Web Marketing a Blow With “Do Not Track”
By Joe Dysart
Businesses that rely heavily on web marketing are in for a rude awakening in the coming year. That’s when privacy advocates will begin crippling the ability to easily track visitor activity on a company’s own website as well as across the Internet. In practice, the backlash against visitor tracking—commonly known as “Do Not Track”—is expected to make it tougher for a company to monitor which visitors are using its website and how they are using it.
This kind of data is critical to the web-analytics programs currently running on virtually all commercial websites of any consequence, which slice-and-dice visitor info to continually make websites more user friendly and more effective. The backlash will also make it more difficult for companies to advertise on other websites, as Do-Not-Track features on newer browsers make it impossible for advertisers to target ads based on an individual’s web use.
For years, visitor tracking has been regarded with mixed feelings by web users, who are often at once charmed and creeped-out by a website’s ability to serve up content and ads specifically tailored to their interests—even if it is the first time they have visited the website. Ironically, one of the greatest blows to visitor tracking will come from Microsoft, which plans to offer a powerful Do-Not-Track feature in the next version of its browser, Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), due out in early 2011.
“Tracking Protection in IE9 puts people in control of what data is being shared as they move around the web,” said Dean Hachamovitch, vice president and head of Internet Explorer development at Microsoft. “It does this by enabling consumers to indicate what websites they’d prefer to not exchange information with.”
Simultaneously, visitor tracking will also be under attack from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which released a report in December 2010 advocating the use of Do-Not-Track technology web-wide. The agency is currently soliciting industry comment on how such a technology would be best implemented.
The FTC has been calling on the industry to implement innovations since 2008, according to David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Although there have been developments in this area, an effective mechanism has yet to be implemented on an industry-wide basis,” he stated.
One of the reasons the FTC has been so tenacious about visitor tracking is that few web users realize just how pervasive the monitoring has become. A visit to a single website, for example, can actually trigger tracking by several other companies. One company may have an ad running on the visited site; another may have a script program that activates upon entry; and a third may begin tracking a visitor after a certain image loads. Still other elements of webpages can trigger other tracking.
“Today, consumers share information with more websites than the ones they see in the address bar in their browser,” said Hachamovitch. “This is inherent in the design of the web and simply how the web works. And it has potentially unintended consequences.”
Not surprisingly, the FTC’s push has been met with resistance from the advertising industry, which prefers self-regulation over marching orders from the feds.
Besides emboldening privacy advocates, the FTC’s move has been championed by the nonprofit Mozilla, maker of the
“While we’ll need more time to digest and evaluate the details, we’re encouraged by what we’ve seen so far,” said Harvey Anderson, Mozilla’s general counsel. “In particular, the FTC has proposed a set of principles that align well with the Mozilla manifesto and our approach to software development, including privacy by design, transparency user choice and no surprises.”
At least two influential legislators—Senator John Kerry and House Representative Ed Markey—are also in the fray, promising to introduce bills in 2011 that would curtail industry’s ability to monitor a person’s web activity without permission. Markey’s bill would attempt to cloak children’s web activity.
“The Internet presents access to incredible opportunities to learn and communicate that were unimaginable only a few years ago,” Markey said. “But kids growing up in this online environment also need protection from dangers that can lurk in cyberspace.”
Short term, the greatest threat to visitor tracking will come from Microsoft. The company has long possessed anti-tracking technology for Internet Explorer but has resisted rolling it out for fear of alienating advertisers as well as impairing its own advertising on the web.
“As one of the leading online advertisers and ad platform companies ourselves, Microsoft has a substantial interest in helping the online advertising industry grow,” said Rik van der Kooi, vice president of the Microsoft advertiser and publisher solutions group. “We believe that the convergence of new privacy tools and robust advertising growth can, in fact, coexist and we are uniquely positioned to provide leadership in both areas.”
Dubbed “Tracking Protection,” Microsoft’s anti-tracking must be turned on in Internet Explorer 9 by a user and then fed a Do-Not-Track list, which enables the browser to block companies a user is looking to avoid. Once released, a master Do-Not-Track list for Internet Explorer 9 is expected to be made available for download by privacy advocacy groups that specialize in identifying and monitoring firms known to track website visitors. In addition, users will be able to create their own Do-Not-Track lists for Internet Explorer 9 or edit lists created by privacy groups and others.
Microsoft’s approach to anti-tracking is especially potent. Unlike other technologies, the feature does not rely on companies tracking visitor behavior to agree to cease and desist tracking when alerted by a user’s browser. Instead, any company on a user’s list is simply prevented from tracking the user’s activity as long as tracking protection remains activated.
Granted, the backlash against visitor tracking is still in its early stages and could be mitigated by quantifiable self-regulation by web marketers, along with artful PR-massaging by groups like Better Advertising. But given Microsoft’s decision to roll out anti-tracking technology with Internet Explorer 9, the momentum is clearly with online privacy advocates.