Do Not Track: The pros and cons of being followed

Moderated by Lawrence Dignan | June 11, 2012 -- 07:00 GMT (00:00 PDT)

Summary: Should tracking cookies be turned off by default?

Ed Bott

Ed Bott

Privacy default

or

Opt out OK

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson

Best Argument: Privacy default

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Big data's role

    Do you see this as a big data issue? In other words, can you aggregate audiences without tracking the way we do today?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Of course not

    The web as we know it today developed almost by accident. When the first web browser was released, the Internet was still technically a noncommercial place. I don't think the original creators of HTTP and HTML ever envisioned a world where pages would be made up of content from dozens of servers, and big corporations would come up with creative and frightening ways to correlate that data to violate people's privacy. The worst part of the "big data" approach is that it is just as likely to create a false picture of me as it is to profile me accurately. Ultimately, successful marketing is based on building honest relationships and having a product people want to buy, not following them around the web and showing creepy ads in the hope that they'll get so sick of the harassment they'll click.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    Ultimately, yes

    Which is why I think Google will come out ahead of Facebook in a do-not-track world (or otherwise) - they've already demonstrated the ability to deliver amazing analytics tools. It will take a shift in the model, but we do already have petabytes of data to use to make BI-related decisions about ad placement rather than using direct tracking. The question, however, is whether these tools will be accessible to those small sites that Ed thinks should just come up with better business models. Do I have data to support my concerns here? I'll dig up data on Adsense demographics for my closing arguments, but I have more than enough anecdotal evidence from site owners who rely on Adsense income to know that the impact will be significant. I also know that Google can actually be a winner in a do-not-track world if they can deliver semi-targeted ads based on aggregate data to these same small advertisers. I've placed more than my share of Adwords ads...hundreds of thousands of dollars worth and seen real revenue and conversions as a result. Google will have no choice but to leverage all of these data and figure out their own new business model.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Tech or Congress?

    Is do not track a technology issue or ultimately a legislative one?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    It's both

    That question is particularly interesting when one party, Google, is building the Internet access devices and runs some of the biggest chunks of the tracking industry. For Android phones and the Chrome browser, to name the two biggest examples, it???s unreasonable to expect that the company will voluntarily protect the privacy of its users. So you have to have some requirements, chiefly the right of the user to have a basic expectation of privacy and to opt in to any data collection. And then you need the technology, probably on the user's end, to enforce that requirement.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    It *should be* a tech issue, but...

    as we've seen in Europe and are increasingly seeing here, it's becoming a legislative one. Whatever happened to caveat emptor? I hate to go sounding all Republican, but I don't want the government telling me what I should allow as a user or what I can do as an advertiser. This isn't to say, however, that advertisers and networks shouldn't be much more transparent and that users shouldn't demand this transparency.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Data, disclosure and currency

    Do users have a good handle on how their data is a currency?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Hell, no

    As the old saying goes, if you're not paying for it, you're the product. The economics of the web are complicated and opaque, and the tracking industry likes it that way. They have a lot of money to spend on consultants and lobbyists and political contributions, and they are well represented on the standards bodies to ensure that their interests are protected. They're not doing that for free. They're using all that valuable currency that we give them. Apparently, just connecting to the Internet is good enough to grant that unlimited permission. So who protects the public interest? A relatively small number of mostly nonprofit groups. In the most recent negotiation over the Do Not Track standard, privacy advocates admitted they "completely conceded" on two of the three key issues. We users are outgunned.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    Nope...not at all

    In fact, that's the real problem here, isn't it? Users don't know what they have, but they know that they don't want Google to get it. Perhaps the real model that Google (and others) need to be exploring centers around user education and, as Ed suggested, laying out the value for users of sharing certain aspects of their browsing and personal data. Ultimately, an intelligent web that understands your interests, needs, and habits is the real framework for the so-called semantic web/Web 3.0. It would be fabulous if users could understand the role they need to actively play to make a more useful web out of the trillions of pages they'll face a reality.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Google vs. Facebook

    Which ad heavy giant will be the biggest loser in a do not track world?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    That's up to them

    Both Google and Facebook have perfectly legitimate products and services. Let them continue to deliver those services and collect information from their customers who sign up for accounts and use their services directly. The idea that forcing third-party advertisers to show some respect for citizens of the web is somehow wrong is ludicrous. Hey, if little web sites that offer services want to make money, let them come up with a solid business model. It's kind of sad that those little web sites are being press-ganged into Google's PR army, especially when there's no proof that ad revenues would drop precipitously in a world where advertisers respected basic privacy rights. Chris, do you have any statistics to back up those dire predictions?

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    Initially Google, long-term it will be Facebook

    Google makes huge money off of Adwords and Adsense. The more directed the ads delivered here, the more that advertisers will pay. However, Google is still the dominant search engine worldwide and has so much aggregate data that it will be able to move to new models and continue to deliver reasonable ads based on search and via other means. They are continuing to expand as enterprise players and can probably circumvent some of these rules via Android and Chrome OS. Facebook, however, doesn't have much else to work with. Sure, they have Farmville, but in the long run, they need to make their advertising business far more robust and exploit their network in ways they haven't been able to properly to meet the demands of Wall Street. Facebook not only has more to lose here but also higher stakes given its recent mediocre IPO.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Winners and losers

    What major Web players---Google, Microsoft, Facebook---have the most to lose in a do not track by default world?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Follow the money

    The more your business model is tied to advertising, the more you're going to want to get as much as you can of a valuable asset (your user's tracking profiles) for as little as possible. So, do the math: * Google gets 96% of its revenue from advertising. * Facebook gets 89% of its revenue from advertising. * Microsoft gets a tiny portion of its revenue (a few percent, maybe) from advertising. It's a software company. * Apple is also a minor player in advertising. It's a hardware company. And Mozilla gets almost all of its annual revenue from a Google Search deal. So guess which companies are fighting any kind of reasonable privacy defaults with every resource they have?

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    Microsoft has other business models, but...

    Google and Facebook will definitely feel the pain. As it is, Wall Street isn't confident that Facebook can adequately monetize its data on users to deliver high-value ads. The winners may actually be the big data companies since all of a sudden all of those bits of data that can be collected but not used directly will to be run through easy to use aggregated data analysis tools. The other losers won't be big players, though - they will be the small sites that rely on placed, relevant ads from an ad network to stay afloat. This really isn't about Google making a few less billions. It's about the freetech4teachers.com's of the world that stay free because of ads.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Privacy still here?

    "Privacy is gone already and we will never step back, but that does not mean we have no right to decide how much they take and how often." Is that user in the talkbacks right? Is privacy gone with a few footnotes?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    I'm not that cynical. Yet.

    Yes, we live in a world where we are increasingly monitored by cameras, by big data collections, by international spy agencies (hello, NSA!) and by web sites. But just because that technology exists doesn't mean that corporations should be allowed to use its output any way they want. I still believe that privacy is a fundamental right. I should have both the expectation that I will not be followed without my permission and the power to stop someone who abuses my privacy. You know, the first W in www stands for World. We Americans might be willing to trade our privacy for a few pennies. Fortunately, citizens of other parts of the world are a little more demanding. (Thanks, Europe!)

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    Yup...it's been gone for a while now

    As soon as Facebook became our de facto means of communication and we came to rely on Google to sort through that billions of bits of information on the web, real privacy died. Users do have the right to understand what data are being collected and where those data go, and how they are used. However, using the web is implicit consent for some degree of data collection and use. Do you think that Directv doesn't know what shows you watch and when? Or Pandora doesn't know what music you like to listen to and therefore is able to associate you with a likely demographic profile? Or that your new car isn't probably sophisticated enough to know your driving habits and therefore have your insurance premium adjusted accordingly? It isn't much different here.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Tracking opt-in rates

    If privacy were to become the default option what percentage of users do you think would opt to be tracked on some level?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Why don't we try it and see?

    Imagine how things would change if the tracking industry had to earn your business. Today, 68% of Americans say they don't want to be tracked. But they don't get a say in the matter. Today, if a web site wants to track your activities online, it doesn't need to ask permission. It just starts collecting data. Your online history and information are valuable. Online advertisers are taking that valuable thing and grossly underpaying for the privilege. If advertisers actually had to convince visitors of the economic value of what they're doing, imagine how that would change. And what exactly would be in that sales pitch? If all they have to offer is creepy ads that follow you around the web after you visit a shopping site, count me out.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    Ummm, like none

    How many users take the defaults in anything? How many users understand why the ads they see on many, many sites are actually relevant to them? This isn't to disparage users - we just happen to live, eat, and breathe this stuff. When users see a question that says "do you want your privacy protected?" or "do you want sites to track what you do?", what are they going to choose? They'll choose privacy, not because they fully understand the implications, but because our visceral reaction is that we want our actions on the web (and anywhere else, despite tweeting what we had for breakfast and checking into foursquare every 10 minutes) to be private. Like I said, false sense of security.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Cookie tracking

    What are the benefits of cookie tracking?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Cookies aren't evil

    First-party tracking is great. It makes things convenient, and it's hard to imagine how the Web could be usable without them. Things like shopping carts, saved logins, and stored preferences are all easier with cookies. And since you chose to visit the site, it's perfectly appropriate to store and use that information, which represents your direct interaction with the site. It's third-party cookies that bring the trouble, especially when you as a web site visitor have no easy way to tell which third parties are tracking you.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    Targeting for advertisers, relevant ads for users

    When I go to Amazon and search for a new condenser mic to use for my podcasts, Amazon knows it, Google knows it, and most likely, a few other advertisers know it. When I post a question on Facebook asking for recommendations on said mic, Facebook knows it. When I head to unrelated sites and suddenly see ads for condenser mics, that's the result of a tracking cookie. And that's OK. Because advertisers pay more for these targeted ads and I'm more likely to click on them, meaning that even little mom-and-pop sites are more likely to get revenue from them. Sure, the ad networks know what I'm interested in. But the economic and practical implications are significant and generally positive.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Tracking as a crutch?

    Is there a way to balance both sides of the equation? Or is it zero sum---tracking or privacy? Ed, it sounds like you think tracking is a crutch today for those pricey marketing types.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    A cudgel, not a crutch

    Right now the privacy game isn't zero sum. It's zero power on the part of the targets of all this tracking. Opening up the privacy debate and shifting the choice so that it's in the hands of the people who are affected is where the balancing process begins. The problem is that the online tracking industry, made up of advertisers and analytics companies, want the freedom to gather as much information as possible, at as little cost as possible, with as little oversight as they can get away with. I'm sorry you have to defend that business model, Chris. That can't be easy. ;)

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    There can be some balance, but not without a painful paradigm shift

    Without tracking and the ad networks it enables, there will have to be a much larger focus on subscriptions. Driving subscriptions is very hard work and hardly something that can be undertaken by many site owners. Even very large sites like ZDNet still rely on advertising partners and traffic from non-registered users. Leveraging ad networks takes the guess work out of this process for the countless sites that can't afford those "pricey marketing types".

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Ad targeting

    If we went without tracking third party cookies how would advertisers target ads?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Marketing 101

    Isn't that why marketing professionals make the big bucks? They have to have a great product, and they have to attract customers. There are lots of legitimate ways for them to do that without Hoovering up information indiscriminately and then exploiting it. Marketers who take the time to find their customers and build honest, fair relationships with them will have all the data they need to be profitable. The ones who have been relying on cheap shortcuts will have to figure out how to make an honest living.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    Direct advertising on sites

    It would, in short, be very difficult and create a lot of work for both advertisers and site owners. Essentially, advertisers would need to find the sites that want ads placed and already appeal to their target audiences (this already happens, but at a smaller scale). Similarly, site owners wishing to monetize their sites would need to seek out advertising sponsors. This diverts from simply being able to create great content that we all value and just leveraging existing robust ad networks. It's important to recognize that most site owners aren't marketing pros. They just have something to share that happens to appeal to a particular audience. Wouldn't that audience rather have them building a better website than focusing on time-consuming marketing efforts?

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's the ideal?

    What's your ideal scenario for: voluntary Do Not Track set-up and/or mandatory (no third party cookies) privacy controls?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Voluntary doesn't work

    I'm not a big fan of voluntary regulation. Asking foxes to guard the henhouse rarely works out. What we're really talking about here is default settings. Why is it OK for the tracking industry to insist that defaults have to be set so that they offer the least privacy protection? Why does someone who innocently visits a web site have to worry about where their data is going? I'd like to see the (mandatory) defaults tilt in favor of privacy, with anyone who uses a web browser being required to explicitly opt in before data can be collected from them and stored for future use.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    Can't we just let the market decide?

    Mandatory rules? Ugh...whatever happened to a free market? Users absolutely should have the right to choose not to be tracked (and largely can either by disabling cookies or using 3rd-party software). You can't opt out of commercials on broadcast television without a DVR because those commercials pay for the shows. Same for the web - there should be a voluntary way for people to opt out of tracking if they choose. Mandating it, though, means that a small group of uninformed bureaucrats will be making decisions with far-reaching implications about which they neither understand nor care.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Do not track debunked...

    Do Not Track technically doesn't block cookies. Today, it would send a message to the Web site owner not to track. The publisher can still collect the data. What should that signal mean in practice?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    No means no

    Do Not Track is one of those great noble ideas that has gone horribly wrong. It started out as an effort by privacy advocates and the tracking industry (advertisers and analytics companies) to come together and provide a way for users to announce their intent to not be tracked. But now the tracking industry has shifted the goalposts. They want the freedom to ignore that signal under some circumstances. They also want the freedom to continue to collect data by coming up with a bizarre interpretation of what track means. There shouldn't be any debate over what Do Not Track means. Don't collect or store any information beyond the minimum required to serve my request, unless I specifically grant permission. I'm very skeptical that the watered-down Do Not Track standard will do anything good.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    It would still mean trouble for ad networks

    And, in fact, would mean a false sense of security for users. Since site owners and their partners can still collect data, they will, not surprisingly, *still collect data*. For the ad networks, though, their subscribers will need to start placing more generic ads and simply look at aggregated data to determine the ads that are most likely to hit a large cross-section of users. It will also mean that the networks will need to rejigger their algorithms considerably and that site owners will get fewer click throughs (and therefore less revenue), while offering little actual protection to users.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Mike check, testing

    Ping back to make sure we're up and running.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    I'm right here

    I'm whistling the theme from Mission:Impossible. And I have Tracking Protection turned on in my browser. ;)

    Ed Bott

    I am for Privacy default

    I'm here, too...

    But ZDNet already knows that, don't they? Along with all of the other sites that I allow to track me, whether explicitly through registration and login or implicitly :)

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Opt out OK

Talkback

9 comments
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  • "devastating effects on the web advertising industry"

    Sorry, but I'm not crying for an industry that's based upon a foundation of tracking people who don't even know they're being tracked.

    I understand the argument that free sites may no longer be able to remain free, but the premise of "assumed consent" just doesn't fly.

    But it doesn't have to be that one or the other. Why does there have to be a default either way? Why can't the browser, upon it's first launch after installation, walk the user through a wizard that informs them of how tracking/targeted advertising works and allow the user to choose whether they want to participate or not? Isn't user education and awareness in the best interest of the user?

    That being said, if it has to be one or the other, the Privacy default is the obvious choice.
    TroyMcClure
    Reply 5 Votes I'm Undecided
    • I agree

      [i]Why does there have to be a default either way?[/i]

      It seems to me, like many government agencies - these companies want to tell you what you want, and make decisions for you. Because of course they know what's best.

      Absolutely the choices should be presented upon first launch with the option to choose either. With an extremely simple way to switch should you change your mind.

      And yes, if it has to be one or the other, Privacy should be the default IMO. Simply because you can't take it back once it's out there.
      Badgered
      Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided
  • TroyMcClure
    Reply 6 Votes I'm for Privacy default
  • re: Lawrence Dignan

    [i]Both sides argued their cases well, but Ed had a better argument.[/i]

    For real? Ed's argument is that 68 percent of respondents to a poll said they don't want to be tracked. That's easy to puncture, because the argument rests entirely on the results of a single question in a single poll.

    The options were:
    I'm NOT OK with it because I don't like having my online behavior tracked and analysed, and
    I'm OK with it because it means I see ads and get information about things I'm really interested in

    Would there have been a landslide if the other response was, "I'm OK with it because it pays for things that I use for free?"

    Like, oh, social networking? Another Pew paper reported 65 percent of online adults use social networking sites. So those 68 percent Ed cited? It looks like their opposition is a little on the soft side. Not much of a case.

    Dawson is right. Without online tracking a lot of sites would go dark. FWIW I definitely would opt out. I do all I can within reason to taint any profile anybody's got on me. In fact, my iPhone thinks I'm a girl.
    none none
    Reply 3 Votes I'm for Opt out OK
  • Questionable whether the Internet would "go dark" without tracking...

    It just means advertisers and the likes of Google would have to adapt to a new "set of rules." It's not like they're saying these sites can't sell ad space, it's saying they can't sliently track you as a means of targeted advertising.

    We're talking about [i]shades[/i] of success here, not success or failure. After all, you can't track/target individuals in traditional media like print, TV, radio, etc., but it's not like ads have disappeared from those formats.
    TroyMcClure
    Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided
  • I don't want to be tracked . . .

    Not only do I erase cookies with every close of my browser, don't allow third-party cookies EVER, disable java script unless I need it for a particular site, but I pay for a VPN service.

    Yeah, I'm for privacy being the default.
    sporkfighter
    Reply 3 Votes I'm for Privacy default
    • Who really cares.

      I don't see what people do online that needs so much protection. If some company thinks they can profit from knowing which celebrity I Google most frequently; all the power to them.

      FWIW; in many countries VPN providers must legally keep server logs detailing your browsing history. You're fixing one problem by introducing another.
      Shane Gowland
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
      • Take a look at people finder websites

        It's amazing how much info can be aggregated from things that are already out there through no doing of your own. Now add your Internet profile, and it's magnified by multiples.
        TroyMcClure
        Reply 3 Votes I'm Undecided
  • "devastating effects on the web advertising industry"

    Repealing slavery had a devastating impact upon the cotton industry, but it was the correct moral and ethical choice, regardless of the financial consequences. Sometimes we just have to take our medicine and eat our peas, as a culture, even if it means some temporary discomfort for some of us.
    simmfoc
    Reply 2 Votes I'm for Privacy default