Why 'Do Not Track' Is a Double-Edged Sword

Twitter has finally caved to peer pressure and announced plans to jump on the “Do Not Track” bandwagon. While privacy advocates, and those creeped out by the thought of Twitter--or any other entity--monitoring online activity may breathe a sigh of relief, “Do Not Track” is far from perfect, and the tracking is not completely without value.

“Do Not Track” is actually implemented at the browser level, but it’s up to the sites and services doing the tracking--like Twitter--to recognize and honor the flag indicating that a user chooses not to be tracked. It’s one of the fatal flaws of “Do Not Track” as a privacy solution that unethical sites can simply ignore the flag and continue tracking your activity regardless of how your browser is configured.

Even when it works “Do Not Track” is not a very eloquent solution. It’s an opt-out approach that assumes up front that tracking is OK. It puts the burden on individuals to be aware that the tracking is occurring, understand where the controls are to enable “Do Not Track”, and make the effort to flip the switch to opt out of having their personal online activity monitored. It would make more sense to only track those who choose to opt-in to such a system.

On the other hand, maybe being tracked isn’t all bad. Consider old-fashioned postal mail. Of course you’d rather not open the mailbox to find a mountain of junk mail ads and catalogs. But, if you’re going to get ads and offers in the mail, wouldn’t it be preferable if they were at least hawking products or services you might remotely be interested in?

Tracking Web surfing habits and online activities enables companies to paint a picture of your hobbies and interests. If you frequently visit sites and forums about golf, you’re more likely to see banner ads and other online marketing related to golf. You might prefer not to see any ads at all, but since the ads are not going away it’s at least a benefit to have ads about something you’re interested in.

Targeted ads are also better for the companies doing the marketing. The goal of the ad is to elicit an action—to get you to click through to get more information. Ultimately, the purpose of advertising is to boost sales. A company that just randomly blasts ads about baby food to the whole Internet is less likely to generate actual sales than a company that pinpoints its marketing to target those ads only at parents of young babies.

Yes, there are certainly privacy concerns to having websites and third-party entities monitoring your online activity and collecting data about you. However, there are also some potential benefits to having a more custom-tailored Web surfing experience. The trick is finding the right balance to make it work for all parties.

[ This sponsored article was written by IDG Creative Lab, a partner of PCWorld. ]

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