Why we said no to Do Not Track (Column)

Users should be given more control, but current proposal has too many flaws

The World Wide Web Consortium was formed in 1994 to provide guidance and standards for internet technology. Since it decided to tackle the issue of online advertising and privacy, the W3C has sparked a great deal of controversy. Marketing asked Tim Stoute to explain why he and eyeReturn reject W3C’s most recent proposal, and what a better system might look like.

The W3C’s most recent draft specification for the proposed Do Not Track (DNT) standard has raised objections from across the industry. Leading ad tech players have criticized the W3C’s proposal even though every one of them supports privacy, security and transparency, and many are members of self­-regulatory bodies like the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) and the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI).

Tim Stoute

Tim Stoute

So what went wrong?

EyeReturn was one of the companies that issued an objection to the standard. There were a lot of reasons for doing so. For one, the proposal is overly complicated. For another, it describes a playing field tilted in favour of dominant technology players. It mixes policy with technology, and doesn’t consider circumstances where the DNT signal is ambiguous. If adopted as drafted, we at eyeReturn, and many of our colleagues and competitors, feel it would have a negative impact on the economic and social value of the internet at large.

Let’s back up and review the situation. Fact one: the vast majority of free online content is supported by ads. What’s more, consumers prefer free, ad-supported content over paywalled content. Over 90% of consumers surveyed by Zogby Analytics on behalf of the DAA indicated that free content like news, weather, email, blogs, and videos are important to the value of the internet, and 75% of them said they prefer content that’s free and ad­supported over content they have to pay for.

Fact two: most consumers prefer to see ads tailored to their interests. Zogby asked participants, “Would you rather see internet ads for random / generic products and services, or ads for products and services that reflect your interests?” and more than 68% responded that they wanted targeted ads.

Fact three: online advertising, and more importantly targeted online advertising, “is a vitally important aspect of the economy.” That quote comes from Maureen K. Ohlhausen, the Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S., at the NIA summit in Manhattan, May 2013. She went on to say consumers need to know what’s for sale, where, and at what price, and online advertising provides that vital service.

As further evidence of this fact, consider a study by Navigant Economics which found that targeted, data­driven advertising generates significantly greater economic value for smaller business and publishers than randomly displayed advertisements. Targeted advertising ultimately allows for small businesses to exist and compete in a business space increasingly dominated by massive corporations like Amazon, Google and Apple.

On to Do Not Track. The basic premise of the W3C’s initiative is that new controls should be built into all web browsers, which would enable users to broadcast a signal to all websites they visit and indicate that they don’t want to be tracked. Sounds simple in principle – but the W3C’s actual proposal is confusing and unclear. It’s 23 pages and more than 6,000 words, and even technical and policy experts can’t agree on how to interpret it. One significant weakness is the definition of “tracking,” which is at best ambiguous, and at worst creates a privacy loophole for large companies to avoid the entire DNT system. Ironically, these are the companies that hold the majority of personal information on web users.

Another weakness is that because of the mechanics of the internet, any piece of software or hardware sitting between the user and the website they’re viewing could change their DNT settings. This could be addressed in a future proposal, but the current one leaves the whole system subject to manipulation. In order to work, the DNT signal must unambiguously reflect the user’s choice.

A large number of businesses depend on online advertising, but the marketplace is coming to be dominated by an exclusive group of very large companies. These pervasive platforms have collected huge amounts of personal information on the majority of web users – but the DNT standard largely ignores them. The proposed DNT standard is overly complex and lacks solutions to blatant issues facing the online advertising industry.

Users should have the choice to opt out of targeted ads, to be aware of data collection, and to change the kinds of advertisements they see. But until the numerous issues with the proposed DNT standard are addressed, we at eyeReturn feel the existing industry self-regulation and opt­out systems offered by the NAI and the DAA are the most effective solution.

Tim Stoute is co-CEO and chief technology officer of eyeReturn, a Canadian advertising technology company. Stoute and the team at eyeReturn recently submitted a response to the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) request-for-comment on its recent proposal for a web standard that would allow web users to opt out of targeted online advertising and data collection – known as “Do Not Track.”

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