FTC’s Do-Not-Track System Proposal – Update

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?

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  • Danger Brown

    It won’t be the end of the world, although it might be a little painful for some affiliates. It just may mean that some of us need to adjust our strategies a little bit.

    • Hey Danger – it is definitely going to be interesting to watch as IE9 comes out and any other initiatives come to light in the months ahead.

    • Maybe this will finally get advertisers to give individual affiliates their own offers…that eliminates the tracking concerns and also gives us a lot more control over creative, etc.

      Maybe there’s a silver lining here.

  • Concerned Affiliate

    I think this whole country is headed towards Communism. Starting with the Do Not Call Lists, then the FTC guidelines about blatantly stating that you’re about to click an affiliate link. And now this crap?

    Of course I agree that there needs to guidelines in place from fraudulent advertisers scamming consumers, but this is clearly going overboard.

    What’s next? The government is going to tell TV stations and Cable providers NOT to track what their viewers are watching, and what demographic, therefore their advertisers would not be able to run their ads in the most optimal time slots?

    2 years ago they tried to restrict insurance agents from selling certain types of fixed annuities, unless they had an investment license, although it’s not an investment product. The insurance industry, the agents, the companies, revolted, contacting congressmen and senators in their states and the House voted against it.

    We need to do the same.

    Just because someone browsing activity is tracked for advertising purposes, doesn’t violate their privacy.

    • I definitely think it is important that the industry has a voice in the process to ensure that any do-not-track system isn’t too drastic that it has a massive impact on online advertising. I actually think their would be a lot of unhappy consumers if they were suddenly opted out of all tracking. Suddenly, their favorite websites don’t remember them and they start seeing more ads that have no relevance for them at all. How many consumers even remember their login info for all the sites they visits? I think many rely on the “remember me” feature and just don’t think of this as part of what tracking means.

      • My sentiments exactly Tom. Big brother has arrived!

    • I completely agree that everyone in the industry should get involved and send their thoughts to their representative.

  • Tom – I’m of the opinion that legit advertisers and publishers won’t be greatly effected by a do-not-track rule. While it may be difficult in the short term, if we educate users to the benefits of tracking we’ll find that many of them will gladly opt-in.

    So, I guess I’m saying that I agree. Consumers will agree to tracking provided the benefits are explained properly and reasonable privacy safeguards are in place.

    • Hey Jason – I think the challenge is figuring out the best way to get that message across to consumers so they understand the benefits of targeting/tracking.

      • Agreed – it will take a lot of effort from industry leaders to open the door. I’m guessing Google will do a lot of the work for us should this rule come to pass.

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