Privacy Backlash Over Ad Tracking Debated

Do Not Track: The Great Debate
Much Internet ado has been made about the Do Not Track bill, which would let people opt out of Internet advertisers’ efforts to track their online activities for better-targeted advertising. On one hand, privacy advocates continually decry the ever-diminishing loss of privacy on the Web. On the other hand, advertisers and trade groups claim that the restrictions would make it harder for online publishers to make money on the Internet--which means that it would be harder for companies to offer free content (such as this article) or free Web apps and services.

(Be sure to continue to the next page where Tom Spring argues why 'Do Not Track' is a big deal .)

Patrick Miller: 'Do Not Track' Is No Big Deal

It’s a dilemma, certainly, but as a card-carrying member of the Internet and a responsible tech journalist, my allegiance lies firmly with Free.

To be sure, the Internet has plenty of things that you should be scared of--child predators, identity theft, and crown princes from Nigeria looking for help moving money out of their country all rank pretty high on the list. Tracked and targeted advertising, however, isn’t on my list, for three main reasons.

1. This is not the privacy you’re looking for: I’m a fan of privacy, generally speaking. I’m big on using my various Facebook privacy settings and ritually untagging pictures after a debauchery-filled evening. I’m so familiar with Google Chrome’s Incognito Mode that I don’t even know where to find it in the menus because I just use Ctrl-Shift-N. But when it comes to advertisement tracking, I’m not concerned in the least--because that’s not the kind of privacy I’m worried about.

The privacy I protect on the Internet is privacy from the people in my life who matter. I don’t want my boss to know if I’m looking for another job, or my girlfriend to know if I’m having an affair, or my cats to know if I really want a dog. (To my boss/girlfriend/cats: None of that is true, honest--you can check my browser history if you like.) I also don’t want complete strangers to be able to dig up intimate details of my life by plugging my name into Google (before a job interview, for example).

Advertisers don’t care about any of that. Their tracking cookies are designed to help figure out what kinds of things I’m interested in and send related ads to me. They don’t store any personally identifiable information. Nothing in there is tied to my name at all, just my Web-browsing behavior--and frankly, I doubt I’m unique when it comes to that. (“Wow”, they’ll say, “this guy doesn’t do a whole lot of work.”) Perhaps I’d change my tune if I were to see ads for therapy or loaded handguns after changing my Facebook relationship status to “Single,” but I’m honestly not too worried about Advertising Profile #9001: Young Adult Male Who Likes Computers.

2. Advertising lets people make money from the Internet: You can consume as much audio, video, and text as you want for the cost of the small coffee that gets you a spot at Starbucks. Never mind that it costs money for someone to record the audio or produce the video or write the words, and that it costs someone else money to bring it to you faster than you can physically listen/watch/read it--you can have whatever you want immediately delivered to you, free of charge. That is the promise of the Internet, and it’s a promise sustained almost entirely by advertising. Goodwill alone won’t power your Pandora’s Phil Collins Radio--the service needs money to pay the piper, which means that it needs to park a few ads there instead.

As a writer, I believe this is important, because it's how I make my living. Unless you, dear reader, are a PCWorld magazine subscriber, the only way I can afford to keep writing is to show you ads while you read this--and the same goes for most of your favorite bloggers, YouTube channels, app developers, and so on. That's pretty cool, because it means that all kinds of creative types can focus on doing interesting things without worrying too much about how to make money from it. Few people would pay money to watch a live video stream of someone playing StarCraft 2, for instance, but throw a few ads on that person's Justin.tv stream, and he can pull in $4500 each month and quit his day job.

Of course, even if Do Not Track is implemented, the Internet will still have advertisements. And that leads me to my third point.

3. I’d rather have better ads than crappy ads: The days of an ad-free Internet are over. Although I’d love to live in a magical world where the Internet never depended on advertising revenue but was just as awesome as it is currently, I don’t think that setup is feasible (unless you use AdBlock, in which case this whole conversation is kind of pointless).

Facebook
The difference with no behavioral tracking isn’t that you won’t see ads at all--it’s that the ads won’t be targeted to your online actions. Instead, you’ll be inundated with advertisements that range from completely uninteresting pitches (overseas Viagra suppliers) to borderline-insulting assumptions based on your demographic (tacky engagement-ring ads on Facebook). Basically, the ads will suck. You won’t be interested in them, which means the advertiser won’t make as much money off them, and as a result the Website will have to find new and creative ways to put more ads on the page (like those obnoxious full-screen ads you have to click past to get to an article).

If I have to put up with ads, they might as well be good ads. If I knew that every time I opened a new Web page I’d encounter Super Bowl-quality ads, well, I might not even be able to make it past the first few lines without opening my wallet and buying something.

That doesn’t mean I’m against all advertising regulation. I’m glad I don’t get telemarketers calling me during dinner these days. But Do Not Track isn’t about making advertising less intrusive or annoying, it’s mostly about protecting data that, to me, isn’t especially important--and it's about condemning me to an Internet where crappy ads reign supreme.

Next page: Tom Spring argues against online tracking by advertisers.

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