Writing about do-not-track, the New York Times agrees with my post “Do-Not-Track? Not so much” from January 25. Money quote:
“ ‘Do Not Track’ is a misnomer. It’s not an accurate depiction of what’s going on,” said Stuart P. Ingis, the head of the Digital Advertising Alliance, a trade group representing the advertising industry, which regards consumer behavior as crucial to its business. “This is stopping some data collection, but it’s not stopping all data collection.”
It’s been very interesting to watch the evolution of Add Block Plus (ABP) these last couple years. ABP, written by Wladimir Palant, is by far the world’s most popular ad blocking software addon. It boasts over 14 million users on Mozilla, and several million more on Chrome.
Ad blocking has long been criticized for hurting web sites that depend on ads to survive. I don’t know how true this is…arguably the kind of people that install ad blockers are not the kind of people who click on ads. On the other hand, some advertising, such as brand advertising, doesn’t rely on clicks to be effective.
Either way, Wladimir took this to heart. Some time ago, he started a dialog among the ABP community to address this issue. His idea is to not block all ads, but only those ads that disrupt the user browser experience, for instance because they flash or are too brightly colored, or because they slow down loading. He argues that this compromise mostly preserves the benefits of ad blocking, while at the same time motivating web site publishers to be more responsible about advertising….something incidentally that benefits all users, not just ABP users.
The latest version of ABP has this feature. What’s more, the feature is on by default (though easy to turn off). Though many people support this change, it has also resulted in a storm of criticism, sadly some of it quite abusive. Besides this, somebody forked off a version of ABP that differs only in that this feature is off by default. At its worst, Wladimir is being accused of selling out to the advertising industry for money. I hate to see this, and hope that Wladimir is able to see past this kind of nonsense. I deeply respect not only that he has been able to build and support such a high-quality addon, but that he is trying to do the right thing in the face of this kind of criticism.
Yesterday I attended the first day of the face-to-face meeting of the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group (do-not-track for short) in Brussels. This was first time I’ve attended. While I certainly understood that the intent of this group is to balance the privacy rights of users with the needs of business, I was nevertheless taken aback at how far the scale tips in favor of business.
The key idea of do-no-track is simple: If a user opts-in to do-not-track, his or her browser sends a signal to the website that the user does not want to be tracked. The main debate in the working group surrounds the question of what the website and its advertising partners can and cannot do upon receiving this bit. My take-away from the meeting is that do-not-track pretty much means that they can track you just enough to serve the purposes of sending you non-behavioral ads, but no more. You might ask, if ads are non-behavioral, why is tracking necessary at all? Part of the answer is “frequency capping”. An advertiser only wants a given user to see an ad so many times, even on different websites. So the ad network needs to keep track of “you” (your cookie) to insure this. Another part of the answer is to defend against click fraud.
Given that the room had a number of privacy advocates present, I was surprised that nobody pushed back on this, suggesting instead that if you can’t do even non-behavioral advertising without tracking, then just maybe you shouldn’t send ads at all. But maybe this was hashed out and rejected in earlier meetings.
Bottom line: do-not-track does not mean no tracking. It should be renamed “do-not-target”. If you don’t want to be tracked, you need to protect yourself by blocking tracking cookies at the browser. If you use Microsoft IE9, you can do this by turning on the Tracking Protection List feature. If you use a different browser, you can install one of the several browser extensions that block tracking cookies: AdBlockPlus, Ghostery, or Abine, to name three.
I’m happy to say that I’ll be giving the keynote at CoNEXT 2011 on Dec. 7 in Tokyo. Title is “Death, Taxes, Advertising, and Tracking”. I’ll post the slides once I have them 😉