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The Misleading Premise of Do Not Track

When’s the last time you took a hard look at the Do Not Track (DNT) negotiations going on right now and thought through what they mean for you and your business? Perhaps you’ve read any number of heated trade pieces on the matter, and the reality dawned on you. After all, these pieces shine a light on those most likely to win in a DNT world—corporations with large first party opt-in databases—so you realize that you may not be one of them. But, how long do you stay worried? What do you? What can you do about it?

As a player in the business of data targeting, there was recently an event that captured my attention.

At a meeting of the W3C Tracking Protection Working group in Amsterdam, some frightening new lines were drawn. Not much has been said about them. I recommend taking a look at the proceedings, which are of course public on the W3C message boards.  I can tell you that marketers should all be very, very concerned. And, it’s time to start bringing our specific concerns into focus and get involved.

But, first, some background

The W3C Tracking Protection Working Group—whose original mission was to improve user privacy and user control by defining avenues for expressing user preferences around web tracking—includes privacy advocates, regulators, and “industry” professionals, primarily from the EU and United States.  Many of those involved are mostly large companies, publishers, and trade associations, all of whom are against DNT except one: Microsoft.  But, we already know that even different divisions within Microsoft don’t see DNT with the same mind-set. While the official stance of Microsoft is one of supporting the ad industry, its corporate messaging has been contradictory. This working group is filled with strange bedfellows, and the ad tech set is barely represented.

The inherent dissonance of this group’s representation is evinced by the limiting standards placed on ad tech companies such as networks, exchanges, platforms, and so on. First parties—e.g., Apple, Disney, The New York Times, and Facebook—have scarcely any requirements being placed upon them. And service providers—e.g., Adobe, Google Analytics—will mostly be able to continue business as usual, even if a DNT signal is received. While this seemingly uneven application of standards does have some history and precursors, I feel that it’s high time for ad tech companies to sort out what this means and take part in the conversation. It is either that or have their futures decided for them.

A closer look at Amsterdam

In Amsterdam, the W3C Tracking WG decided that it would be acceptable for first parties to use the data they collect from any corner of their Internet properties for ad targeting across the Web. This means Amazon’s own ad network would be immune to any DNT signal.

The effects of the W3C working group will eventually touch everyone in our business, though not everyone in our business is paying attention, let alone represented there. In fact, the W3C’s DNT spec does not impose any requirements on browsers to ensure that consumers have a chance to understand DNT. Given that current browser language explaining DNT, “Tell websites not to track me,” doesn’t come close to actually defining the DNT functionality, and that some browsers seem content to engage in hyperbole to increase market share, this is a big disconnect on the protective purpose of DNT in the first place. Yet, we keep having this conversation at a high level in the trades and among ourselves.

As our digital landscape gets carved up, there is a broader peril for all of us, not just those in ad tech:

  • Consolidation in the media technology space will continue and harm our ability to sustain our course
  • Consumers will be misled into thinking that they’re not being tracked
  • Digital advertising costs will increase with fewer options available for marketers
  • Fewer content choices will be available to consumers
  • We’ll see the emergence of a data oligopoly of large Internet players
  • It will be more difficult for start-ups to innovate and thrive, leading to less innovation for consumers
  • All the while, the very protections that consumers are supposed to receive from DNT won’t be realized, as large companies will simply conduct business as usual on this new course

And with these hazards at hand, there are specific questions to be answered before DNT takes hold:

  • Why aren’t browsers required to clearly communicate the impact of DNT to consumers, with meaningful explanation of their choices?
  • Why isn’t there widespread discussion from the W3C, and pro-DNT policymakers, about the anticipated, negative impact of this standard on the business ecosystem?
  • Why aren’t long-tail publishers and other small businesses part of the W3C working group?

So, what can we do? There are a number of calls-to-action: write to the W3C demanding policy change; apply to join them; get vocal on unfair representation.

I also would like to note that many see promise in Peter Swire taking over as co-chair of the W3C Tracking Protection WG. On top of his credentials, Swire is known as a practical guy. We can hope that he will lead with common sense and a push to balance interests. We can certainly use all the common sense we can muster at this point.

Christopher Hansen is president of Netmining.

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