Do Not Track: The Internet “Hangover”


What do gin and Do Not Track have in common? Both can leave a bad taste in your mouth and give you the spins.

Two weeks ago I attended the Tribeca Film Festival in New York for a gin-and-tonic tasting and the festival’s Storyscapes exhibit—a collection of interactive media projects. I spotted the documentary series Do Not Track listed on the exhibit’s brochure and knew that I’d have to check it out as soon as I finished my tasting. (Yes, I was completely sober after my gin sampling. I’m not much of a gin drinker and probably drank less than half of my cocktail).

For those who haven’t seen the film, Do Not Track is a seven-episode personalized documentary–style Web series. Each episode explores a different aspect of privacy and data collection. For instance, I watched episode one, “Morning Rituals,” which explains who collects consumer data and how they benefit. Other episode topics include the role of cookies and Facebook’s tracking capabilities.You can watch the trailer for the series at the top of this article.

The series was created from developers, graphic designers, journalists, and media producers from across the globe—including Canada, Germany, France, and the United States—and offers a global perspective on Do Not Track.

“We’re trying to make sense of privacy in the digital age just like everybody else,” says Brett Gaylor (pictured), director of the film series and former leader of Mozilla’s Webmaker initiative.

The series also addresses many of the questions—some left unanswered—surrounding Do Not Track, such as how much data should third parties be able to collect and are the advertising and digital industries being transparent enough with their consumers?

“There’s a bit of a hangover [from] the Internet party right now,” Gaylor says, “where people are trying to figure out, ‘Hey, we never really realized the social and civic consequences of an economy that’s based on gathering data about people.’”

Within 48 hours of the series’ April 14 premiere, more than 88,000 Web users visited the film’s site more than 105,000 times. And in one week, more than 160,600 Web users made more than 175,800 visits. More than 197,200 Web users had visited the film’s site as of April 28.

I decided to follow up with Gaylor and ask him about his views on Do Not Track. Here’s what he had to say:

How would you define Do Not Track?

It’s the browser header that, [when] a user sets it, tells advertising networks that are compliant with the standards that you don’t want any information collected about you. It’s an entirely opt-in approach and, unfortunately, it’s pretty much failed because of that. At least, in the United States, often the industry is left to regulate itself and I disagree with that. This is far too serious of an issue [for] self-regulation. In fact, the United States has some of the most lax regulation in the developing world around these issues. That’s what Do Not Track means in the industry sense, but we thought that it was just a pretty great name, so then we thought, “What would Do Not Track the movie look like?” and that’s what we made.

What’s the biggest misconception consumers have about Do Not Track?

First of all, people have never heard of it. I don’t think it’s a matter of misconception. Consumers are just not aware of how this economy works. Consumers believe that when they’re on a social network like Facebook that the tracking is crude: So, if they like Taylor Swift, they’re going to see advertisements for Taylor Swift’s new album. They’re not really aware of how the algorithms work because—of course—they can’t see that; they’re secrets. And they aren’t really aware of a profile that’s built on them based on their browsing habits. They haven’t really thought of the idea that if you go to three different sites, then a profile is built that an advertiser can bid against. That’s science fiction to most consumers. Let alone the idea of something like Facebook Atlas where you’re browsing activity outside of Facebook is informing what goes on on Facbeook. They’ve never really thought about that. 

I think that extends to a lot of other aspects of people’s lives. The thing that really raises people’s eyebrows is their phone…. [It’s] this idea that my smartphone is still a radio device that’s pinging all of these cell phone towers. When I gave my mobile carrier my credit card information and my social security number, I wedded that to that unique device: “Oh yeah, so it’s not just this random phone number. It’s my identity and everything that goes with that.” Once they realize that, then they might say, “Well, who can have access to it? How much information about somebody do you need to get a warranty? Am I sharing my location data with an appropriate app?” 

Even though apps need to request those permissions I think people are quite blasé about them. There’s been a social conditioning to just accept, accept, accept. Once they see it in a broader concept I think that people are…starting to say, “Hold on, flashlight app. Why do you need access to my contacts? What are you doing with that?” That’s a good thing for everybody. Ultimately, if the industry is working with an informed set of citizens, rather than “consumers” that are just in the dark about this, that’s a much better place to be.

If you had to summarize marketers’ approach to Do Not Track in one word, what would it be and why?

I think it’s gold rush…. Companies like DoubleClick figured out a way to track people with cookies, but they were sued. Then in the U.S., federal judges said, “Actually, what they’re doing is OK.” Once that happened it was sort of a rush to figure out the best way to build these networks. Of course, then they were bought by the giants like Google and Yahoo. It’s sort of a land grab. 

What you see now is that any startup that wants to get into this space has to figure out more and more inventive, and sometimes more invasive, ways of tracking people. What that does is create an entire financial environment where people are incentivized to collect more data. Because if you want access to venture capital, they’re going to say, “How many eyeballs do you have and what do you know about them?” 

So, it really is kind of a Wild West. Some [ad networks] are starting to get it and build product and services that are respecting citizens’ information; others are trying to operate as close to the edge of the law as they can. Advertisers and marketers need to think about their role in shaping social norms around these issues, as well. It’s a whole ecosystem.


What do you think that the United States could learn from other countries’ approach to Do Not Track and the way they collect consumer data through the Internet?

I’m not an American citizen…. I’m Canadian…. But what I would say is that, as a non-American, I have been surprised at the amount of profiles that are kept on U.S. citizens. If you look at a data broker like Acxiom, it’s quite astounding the percentage of Americans that have these profiles that are held by data brokers who are assembling lists. They’re taking things like direct mail, compiling that with records that they’re able to get from browsing history and other public records, and they’re building these profiles. What’s the percentage of Americans who know that’s happening? It’s got to be minimal. I think that it’s quicksand to build an industry on something that so few users are aware of and the potential for backlash for something like that is quite large.

Who should be responsible for educating consumers about Do Not Track? Is it the consumers themselves? Brands and websites they visit? Or organizations like the FTC?

All of the above. What we’re starting to see now, too, though, is advocacy groups, journalists, and media that’s in the public interest, like us, [who are] starting to get people talking. That’s our role. 

[Also, it’s] going to depend on your context [and] which country you live in. Some countries have government entities that are specifically for protecting privacy. The FTC has done a good job of looking after—to the degree that it can—consumers. 

So, it’s really all of the above, but there’s some responsibility for consumers to take a role in that.

I think about it in the way that people think about food. Twenty years ago how many people ate organic food? You had to be a super granola hippie to eat organic food. But then people started to realize, “Oh yeah, it’s not just about my weight. There are a lot of outcomes from the food that we eat.” If we choose to support a local farmer, for instance, that’s going to mean that it’s far less likely that there was exploited labor involved in all of this. If you choose a local farmer, it’s far less likely that there are going to be pesticides, which not only are they bad for us, but they’re bad for the ecosystem around that food. If we eat whole foods instead of processed foods, it has a whole bunch of positive outcomes on our health. Those changes in the amount of food that’s eaten correctly did not happen solely because of legislation or solely because Michael Pollan wrote a smart book, or solely because of whole foods being available in more and more stores. That all happens together. 

You’re going to have some forces that are market forces, some forces that are legal forces, and some forces around social norms all working together. It’s not like people need to pick up a placard and march on the street with it, necessarily. But some of that is helpful—that you have activists who are going out there and pushing some boundaries. Some of it is a consumer piece, and some of it is a perception and general awareness piece.

How can marketers and advertisers be more transparent with consumers about what information they’re collecting and tracking?

Marketers should do a better job of explaining what they’re doing in plain English. Often, in the terms and conditions of a publisher’s website you’ll see that they use an advertising network, but that might be as far as it goes. You don’t really realize that the advertising networks themselves load in a bunch of third parties. Where does that accountability lie? I don’t know. Explaining it all in really plain English and being less nervous to talk about it is a big piece. I think most marketers would say, “We should get ahead of this. We should have a public conversation.” People are ready for it. I think that’s on marketers.

There’s this notion that often a marketer will say “Hey, we don’t actually collect any information about you. This is all anonymous.” I think that’s just an easy way out. As the computer science community has repeatedly shown, perhaps the granular piece of information is anonymous, but when you take a larger view, the profiles that are collected are often quite unique and tied to us personally. Acknowledging that is a big piece of the question—and talking about it and being upfront.

Do today’s consumers even really have a choice today in whether their data is collected? Can they actually say no?

It’s a big question…. If you want to be somebody who participates in this digital economy, is that really optional? I don’t think that it is. If you’re a parent, for instance, don’t you need a cell phone? If you want to be part of the modern Web economy, you have to go online. It is very difficult not to be tracked. That’s why I think we need to keep discussing these issues [and] which parts of our life require anonymity. What parts of our digital selves do we not want a profile attached to? That’s the stuff that we’re trying to discuss in the documentary.


At what point do marketers and advertisers go too far in terms of tracking consumers’ data?

I believe that there should be a pretty clear wall between your digital self and your physical self. I’m not comfortable with the idea of profiles that are attached to me based on my physical location.

Any reason why?

Everyone has their own [preference] meter.  What bothers me is the notion that I would be able to be A/B tested to see if advertising that I was presented online led to me having an intent to purchase on a website that led to an actual conversion in a store and that part of my universe had something to do with it. That, for me, removes a lot of my agency and freewill as a human being. I don’t like the idea that there is an attempt to influence me that strongly. But I know that there’s a whiteboard somewhere where somebody is trying to get me into that conversion funnel.

How would you respond to marketers and advertisers arguing that they’re trying to provide consumers with value?

That’s irrelevant to me. I’m not completely opposed to advertising and sponsorship, but I’m unconvinced that we need to be tracking one another so closely to provide it. Everybody has to agree that banner advertising is totally dead. But what you have is this huge inventory of all of these ads. There’s this pressure to say, “Well if we can take this stock of advertising and make it convert 0.000002% we’re at least ahead of all of those other jerks that basically have all of this useless inventory.” So, that incentivizes people to try and track a little bit more. It doesn’t have anything to do with value, but we’ve accepted advertising as the defacto business model for the Internet. 

Sometimes I feel like we did that because it was the easiest thing. As the Web came out, it was a hard sell for [consumers] to get on the Internet and pay for it. Advertising was considered a way to underwrite it. It didn’t really take off as a model until there was a way to measure it and measure people’s intentions and outcomes. For me, it’s separated from the value statement. Marketers would say that [they’re offering value], but I think that it’s creating value for them. It doesn’t help as a society if we let them get away with that. 

Let’s make no mistake: If you’re a multibillion-dollar industry, that’s cool and that does create a lot of jobs. But the idea that it’s the only way to finance the Web—I’m not buying it. With smart people, we should be able to figure out many ways to do this and there’s lots of different models.

What would that perfect Internet economy look like to you?

I think that it would be more varied. We all agree that there is a role for advertising. I’m not sure if it’s the one that should support journalism, for instance. The Guardian [wrote about] a depressing survey recently [that discussed] how much [consumers would] be willing to pay for an annual fee, and I think they said like a pound. Part of it is on consumers. We have to say, “We need you to find ways to pay for this.” But people find ways to pay for music streaming, for HBO GO, for lots of things. And there are lots of smart models. In the UK, for instance, everyone who has a TV pays a licensing fee and that’s what gives them amazing BBC programming. For radio, they figured out all kinds of licensing models where the radio station pays a flat fee and then they can play whatever they want. It’s a win-win. Artists get a royalty statement; the public gets lots of music; and the radio station can play whatever they want. That’s hard on the Internet. But just because it’s hard that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying. There’s lots of unintended consequences when we just move entirely to an ad-supported model, and I think we’re seeing that this continued tracking is one of them.

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