Parting thoughts on the Great Debate - Do Not Track: The pros and cons of being followed

An unabridged version of my closing arguments to a very interesting debate.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to debate do-not-track provisions and standards for web browsers with Ed Bott. Admittedly, I took the unpopular stance that users should need to opt out of tracking rather than opt in. It's not, though, as most people would expect, because I'm so bullishly pro-Google. All of us debaters get to write closing arguments, but we're limited to 150 words. I was feeling a bit more long-winded than that, so here are my unabridged parting thoughts.

Advocates for do-not-track provisions in browsers have the upper hand in this debate: Who doesn't want their privacy protected? Who wakes up one morning and thinks, "Gosh, I should really share some more of my personal data with Google and Facebook"? The answer, of course, is nobody.

However, there are many, many small business owners who wake up and say "Yesterday, my online ad campaign helped me find 15 new customers. Today, I'm going to tweak my ad a bit and spend a little will be worth it if I can hit 20 conversions today." We don't like being thought of as "conversions", marketing speak for web surfers who click through an ad and actually become customers. But to countless small business owners, ad networks like Google Adwords represent a powerful tool for expanding their customer bases.

On the 10th anniversary of Google Adwords two years ago, an article in the Guardian explained, "The overwhelming majority [of Adwords customers] are small and medium-size businesses. AdWords offers a way to grow that "wasn't possible to them before – the market was just too inefficient," says [then managing director for Google in the UK and Ireland, Matt] Brittin.:

The same goes for the many small sites that survive by subscribing to Adsense or for small businesses that advertise on Facebook and LinkedIn. Ad networks that allow careful targeting of users interested in particular products provide an easy means of generating revenue and finding new customers around the world.

The majority of this is enabled by the very tracking cookies that advocates for a default do-not-track setting in browsers are trying to eliminate (or at least limit in their effectiveness). While my colleague, Ed Bott, suggested that these sites and small businesses simply need a better business model, the reality is that targeted advertising keeps a wide swath of the web free and makes more than a small chunk of the Internet economy go round and round.

Yes, users should be able to opt out of tracking. But forcing them to opt in (which most simply won't do) will have impacts that reach far beyond Google's deep pockets and into the far shallower pockets of small businesses that survive and grow because of the small price most of us pay in perceived privacy. The same privacy that literally billions of people have already waived in much more substantial ways by tweeting their whereabouts, joining Facebook, checking in on Foursquare, and posting their daughter's birthday parties on YouTube.

Privacy, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.


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