The latest topic floating around privacy blogs is something called “Do Not Track.”
It is an effort to limit the information that advertisers can accumulate about us from our online habits and activities.
The idea comes with a terrific pedigree: Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, plus some professors from Princeton and the Electronic Frontier Foundation; all good guys, I am sure.
The Mozilla Foundation, with its Firefox browser, and Google, with its Chrome browser, have jumped on the bandwagon. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission is considering asking Congress to give it the force of law to limit how companies can influence advertising based on users’ web-browsing habits.
I have no disagreement with the idea or objectives behind “Do Not Track.”
I have previously written about the destruction of privacy that could arise, particularly as our Internet-based activities are cross-referenced with real-world records (speeding tickets and the like), perhaps combined with those ubiquitous security cameras. (Think about what face recognition technology will mean.)
I would like to put the “Do Not Track” initiative into some perspective.
The objective of “Do Not Track” is to counter something called “behavioral targeting,” which certainly sounds ominous. Basically, it means that most of our Internet activities are being recorded somewhere. Nothing terribly new or surprising there — we see it in the way that Google, Amazon, and various other sites interact with us. Their stated objective is to make our online activities easier and more productive, and they certainly are successful in that regard.
However, it seems that over the last few years, several networks of information aggregators have started to combine information across the various sites that we visit.
Theoretically, information from our Google searches, Amazon buying habits, and Netflix entertainment choices could be combined into a single dossier. Some of the companies that are doing this are the “usual suspects” of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, but also others you’ve probably never heard of, like Coremetrics and Quantserve.
Of course, they are not doing all this out of idle curiosity. They are doing it so that they can tailor ads to our demographics and likely interests. So let’s assume that you download Firefox 4.1, when it is available, and let’s even assume that the advertisers, voluntarily or otherwise, comply with the initiative.
What really will have changed?
Will we get fewer ads cluttering our browser? Of course not. The only difference is that they will be more-or-less random ads, instead of targeted ones. One can certainly make the case that, if you are going to be forced to see ads (which are necessary to support the “free” sources that you wish to access), then they might as well be ones that are of potential interest to you.
In principal, behavioral targeting is no different than advertisers using viewer surveys to figure out that they should put ads for incontinence products and Medicare insurance supplements on network news programs instead of MTV.
The “Do Not Track” initiative is a bit of a red herring: while it may make users feel secure, it is merely a distraction from the more insidious invasions of online consumer privacy, such as the potential to combine web browsing history with information “leaked” from social network sites.
I’ll be covering this issue in future posts. In the meantime, what’s your biggest worry about online privacy?