“You’re not paranoid if you’re really being followed” is a punchline to an old joke rather than a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis. Paranoia about who’s following you is no joke when it comes to online advertising and behavioural targeting.
Do Not Track (DNT) has grabbed headlines recently in the U.S. and Europe, as debates over standards have turned into a royal battle among privacy advocates, Web browser providers, social media sites, and digital advertisers. The battle is over how to implement “Do Not Track,” a Web browser privacy button that opts a user out of receiving targeted advertising and the collection of online behavioural data. The battle is moving from the opt-out technology — which should be the easy part — to policy and regulatory issues — which are always thornier.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is working on the technology standard. (Should we be concerned that the newsmedia industry lacks a presence in the W3C?) In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission has proposed a framework for protecting consumer privacy. The White House released a Privacy Bill of Rights earlier this year that may lead to new consumer privacy laws.
In Europe, which is usually out in front on matters of privacy, the European Union passed a DNT “Cookie” law last year, with enforcement scheduled to begin May 26, 2012. Of the 27 EU states, only Denmark, Estonia, and the UK met the deadline. I’m guessing the European economic crisis may have taken precedence over matters of privacy.
The current focus of DNT is on third-party tracking, which means Web sites the user does not directly visit, including ad networks, social media sites, and Web analytics services. The real tracking problem emerges when sites collect information across a wide range of sites, using cookies that are placed on your computer when you load a page containing an ad. Google and Facebook are the most successful third-party trackers. The Facebook “Like” button is a prime example of non-advertising third-party tracking. Facebook can monitor all the pages you visit that incorporate the button, whether or not you click it and whether or not you have an account. The third-party tracking becomes more transparent to consumers. Facebook is being sued for US$15 billion for tracking users, even after they have logged out of the social network, and violating federal wire-tap laws.
Newsmedia publishers are first parties, which puts our industry on higher ground than third parties. Still, no Web site is immune and third-party Web tracking is pervasive. According to a 2010 Wall Street Journal analysis, the top 50 U.S. Web sites used an average of 64 third-party tracking tools. The stakes are high, and the rewards are hard to resist. Global online advertising reached US$80 billion last year, and targeted advertising was the fastest-growing category.
Do Not Track presents a special dilemma for news media as businesses that rely on trust and credibility. Privacy is a trust issue. Digital advertising revenue — a rare bright spot — will be at risk as consumer awareness of DNT grows. Publishers should be worried, if not paranoid. DNT also is an opportunity to take the lead and reassure consumers.
Transparency about tracking policies and opt-outs is the way to take a leadership position on DNT and build the trust of the audience.