A simple privacy setting in a browser that lets users ask that they not be tracked on the Web doesn’t seem all that controversial. But it is. A lobbying group of major advertisers, including several tech companies that should know better, are going to war with Microsoft and consumers over the setting.
Before I explain further, note the italicized word “ask.” The setting that Microsoft plans to add to its upcoming Internet Explorer 10 browser merely allows users to state a preference not to be tracked via third-party cookies. That’s right. Just asking. But afraid of anything that might keep their ads from appearing in front of as many eyeballs as possible, the board of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) has written a shockingly aggressive letter to Microsoft, demanding that it not add “Do Not Track” as a default option in the browser.
Do Not Track, they say, would “harm consumers, hurt competition, and undermine American innovation.” Wow. Revolutionaries take note: Capitalism can be overthrown with a simple setting in a browser.
“ANA’s Board of Directors is very upset that the choice being made by Microsoft is one that will ultimately threaten to reduce the vast array of free content and services available to consumers,” the advertisers claimed.
IE10 is scheduled to be released alongside Windows 8 on Oct. 26; a Windows 7-compatible version will ship later in the year. Four of the five major browsers — Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari — can send a Do Not Track signal. Google, the most advertising-dependent of the browser makers, hasn’t yet adopted the feature in Chrome, but says it will by the end of the year.
Tracking does more than present targeted advertising. It allows companies to collect vast amounts of data about users, data that can be used to push up advertising rates and potentially spy on individuals. From the point of view of the advertisers, the stakes in this game are quite high.
The directors of ANA include representatives of Intel, Adobe, Dell, and IBM, tech companies that always pose as consumer friendly, along with giant corporations like Walmart, Bank of America, and McDonalds.
Consumer privacy advocates are appalled by the ANA’s bullying. “The online advertising industry has dropped its facade of negotiating Do Not Track in good faith,” said Jonathan Mayer, one of two Stanford researchers who devised the HTTP header concept used by browsers to signal a user’s DNT decision.
“This week’s letters to Microsoft and W3C leadership are part of that,” Mayer said in an interview with Computerworld, one of our sister publications.
If Microsoft goes ahead with the Do Not Track feature (and it certainly should) advertisers could simply ignore the do not track information contained in the browsers and track anyway, which could touch off a stupid tit for tat between advertisers and users, says Leslie Harris, CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.
“Of course, ignored browsers can respond in kind — either blocking third-party cookies from companies that ignore their headers (indeed, Apple already prevents all third parties from setting cookies in Safari, Do Not Track or not), or even blocking the third parties from rendering ads at all,” Harris wrote in a blog post. “Sites could then respond in turn by blocking users who block cookies or ads (as happens sometimes today for users who install Ad Block), thus pushing users to install work-arounds that forge (or exchange) cookie values or, out of desperation, that pirate publishers’ content entirely.”
What a waste of time, energy, and money that would be. Avoiding the mess would be simple. Let Microsoft install the Do Not Track technology and trust that consumers who want to see targeted ads will figure out what to do. Arrogance and corporate greed don’t win customers.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.