Last week, the FTC issued a report proposing a Do-Not-Track system that would allow internet users to opt-out of having their online surfing behavior tracked. Not surprisingly, the proposal generated plenty of reactions from elected officials, consumer privacy advocates, and online advertising industry professionals. Privacy advocates and several members of Congress were enthusiastic about the proposal while other elected officials and various industry professionals expressed serious concerns about the negative effects such a systems would have on the advertising industry and online economy in general.
Well, now we have an update, with a recent announcement from Microsoft regarding the upcoming release of Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) which began beta testing in mid-September September and should be ready for wide release in early 2011. According to Microsoft, IE9 will offer consumers a new “opt-in mechanism (Tracking Protection) to identify and block many forms of undesired advertising.” An additional feature, “Tracking Protection Lists,” will give consumers control over what third-party site content can track their online activities and behavior.
Part of the functionality will allow users to select from a variety of server “blacklists” that would then be blocked, so that the browser would refuse to put through calls to those servers made by any websites the user has visited. Where these lists would come from remains unclear, but possible sources include industry groups and privacy organizations, among others.
Not surprisingly, some privacy advocates seem very optimistic about the Microsoft announcement, calling the new features “enormously powerful – far more powerful than the industry would like.”
One of the most important aspects of the Microsoft announcement states that these features will be available for users to opt-in to, but the default setting on IE9 will have them disabled, unless a user actively goes into their settings and activates them.
The Microsoft announcement does make some interesting statements about online tracking, noting that “the web lacks a good precise definition of what tracking means.” I think this is a very accurate statement, especially when describing the views of the average web user. Many internet users likely appreciate the convenience of being recognized by a website they visit frequently (take Amazon.com for example) and having relevant information presented to them immediately upon arrival at the site. But, many of those same consumers might say that they don’t like having their activities tracked by advertisers while being online. I think this speaks to a fairly significant disconnect between all the ways in which cookies and other online tracking technologies impact web users’ online experiences and the more limited ways that they understand or perceive the concept of online tracking.
My feeling would be that if you asked a random sample of web users whether or not they wanted their online behavior tracked by third-party companies, without any context as to what that tracking was used for, the majority would likely have a negative opinion of it. On the other hand, if you rephrased the question to ask whether those same web users enjoy the convenience of having their favorite websites ‘recognize’ them when they arrive and if they would rather view ads that might actually interest them, as opposed to just seeing a bunch of unfocused ads that would very likely mean nothing to them, most users would have a positive reaction to the idea.
What do you think about IE9 or the concept of Do-Not-Track in general? What can the industry do to better educate web users about online tracking?