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.

Tom Spring: Advertisers' Online Tracking Is Bad

Note to advertisers who want to track me online: Buzz off.

My privacy is sacrosanct to me, both in my home and online. I have already made enough compromises to accommodate the digital world that I live in. Giving advertisers the green light to profile me, follow me around on the Internet, and show me ads based on my behavior is wrong, and flat-out creepy. It’s also potentially dangerous, and it could lead to virtual forms of redlining, leaving the lone consumer at the mercy of powerful companies more interested in their bottom line than my well-being.

Online privacy
Current do-not-track legislation working its way through Congress, and other initiatives put forth on the state level, such as in California, are important first lines of defense against an unchallenged advertising industry willing to test the limits of my personal privacy in exchange for a dime. I applaud these do-not-track efforts, as well as similar ones by Microsoft and the Mozilla Foundation with their respective browsers, Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox 4, both of which empower the consumer with do-not-track features (albeit flawed ones).

Right now advertisers have the upper hand. In the United States we have few limits on how Web-based companies can track consumers online, and with whom they share that data. Without legal limits--and because do-not-track controls within IE and Firefox rely on the voluntary participation of Websites--consumers are caught in privacy purgatory and have no way to say "no" to tracking.

1. Opting in versus opting out: Consumers, at a minimum, deserve the right to choose whether to be tracked--to opt-in. All I'm arguing for is the real option to tell advertisers to go away, not to track me, and to stop displaying ads based on my online behavior.

That’s what the do-not-track measures proposed in Congress and in California provide. Both call for Websites to get opt-in permission from users before collecting personal data. Proposed regulations would also require Web companies to inform users of their data collection and tracking efforts, and would allow civil lawsuits against companies that failed to comply with the regulations.

It’s not time to be whistling in the dark, arguing “I love playing Plants vs. Zombies online for free, so screw my own privacy.”

2. I’m not paranoid--the threat is real: New methods of data harvesting, coupled with new online advertising techniques, push the privacy envelope way too far. At the heart of these privacy-busting trends is advertisers' desire to track your interests on the Web and display what are called behavior-based ads.

Advertisers have gone way beyond cookies, and are collecting the “public” data we post on social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn to target ads more effectively. But might your Facebook status ever be used by a credit agency, health-care provider, or future employer to determine if you are a good bet? See my May 2010 story called "Good-Bye to Privacy?" for a list of companies engaged in such practices today.

Advertising firms bristle at the notion that your credit card issuer could jack up interest rates based on a tweet in which you announce that you just got laid off. But privacy experts say that this scenario may become a reality in coming years (see "Can Your Online Life Ruin Your Credit?").

As a result of online tracking, connections between your offline and online worlds can be made through an e-mail address kept on record by a company that you do business with. That e-mail address could create a link to a composite profile made up of your online activities at social networks and other sites. By cross-referencing that e-mail address, advertisers can show you banner ads tailored to your spending habits, to your health problems, and to your political views expressed on Twitter.

The rise of online tracking and data harvesting has created cunningly effective advertising campaigns customized to a Web surfer's household income, interests, and online activity. The Center for Digital Democracy's Jeffrey Chester tells me he believes that this type of advertising fosters predatory ads. Examples might include dubious health cures or high-interest loans for HDTVs.

The examples above clearly show that online tracking, unlike other forms of online advertising, can be used to identify people surfing online. Patrick says sites "don't store any personally identifiable information." He misses the point. Individual sites (that you haven't registered with) don't store personal identifiable information, but online advertisers that track you do. Sometimes they may have your name. Other times they may know every single thing about you (down to your household income, address, political slant, sports you like, and etc) but just not your name. What's the difference? Lastly, for the determined, such as a government, scammer, or advertiser, it's easy to extrapolate a name from the anonymous data collected online. It's been done many times before.

Online privacy

3. Mythbusting the "Who cares about tracking" argument: The other side of the argument, as Patrick describes, says that prohibiting advertisers from tracking us online would cause the amount of free content (news, games, services, Web apps) to dry up.

Do-not-track doesn't threaten the free Internet - not by a longshot. Patrick is flat out wrong claiming it will and so are others that argued Facebook will have to charge $20 a month if advertisers can't display these type ads. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (PDF) "In 2009, overall revenue from all types of Internet advertising was $22.661 billion, while spending on behaviorally targeted ads was $925 million." That's less than 5 percent.

But in a world where Web surfers can choose to opt out from being tracked online, contextual advertising and nontracking forms of interest-targeted advertising are unaffected. Advertisers can still show Patrick those awesome relevant ads he likes; they just can't use his browsing history on other sites. Non-behavior based forms of online advertising, such as contextual, demographic, search, and social network advertising, would not be impacted by do-not-track measures and can still serve up relevant ads.

Patrick also argues he doesn't care about advertising tracking him because it's "not the kind of privacy (he is) worried about." This smacks of a very narrow "I don't care because it doesn't affect me" attitude. I do care about advertisers tracking me, but more importantly about those seeking loans, life insurance, and health information. I worry about the woman who spent the last six months scouring the Web for information on breast cancer that could have her IP address flagged by a health insurance provider's Website when she requests information for a new policy.

Other Web-focused trade groups argue that do-not-track restrictions are too hard for the advertising industry to implement. That is not true. Microsoft and Mozilla both have proved that implementing do-not-track flags (as an HTTP header) is possible.

Still other parties, such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau, say that doing away with behavioral ads based on tracking data will lead to more-obtrusive ads. In my experience nothing has ever stopped advertisers from squeezing more-obtrusive ads into my browser. If advertisers can do it, they will--do-not-track laws or not.

The just-because-advertisers-can-they-should mentality is a bad one. Unfortunately, most Web surfers don’t have the time or energy to understand the byzantine and technically cunning way they are being taken advantage of. It’s time to shed a little light on the problem, take a stand, and enforce some limits on the “Internet-advertising industrial complex."

Where do you stand on advertisers' tracking users online? Is it an undue invasion of privacy, or are you fine with behavioral ads? Sound off with your thoughts in the comments area below.

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