I discovered how sophisticated the practice of Web-based advertising is when I updated my Facebook page with a status report that mentioned by home state football team, the Green Bay Packers.
Instantly, all the ads changed to ones for NFLGear.com, Packers fan sites and an invitation to friend Aaron Rodgers. Is this robust ecosystem in danger from “Do Not Track?” I think not.
But that’s not how the advertising community sees it. News that Microsoft is going to select “Do Not Track” as the default browser setting in Internet Explorer 10, which rolls out with the Windows 8 operating system, has been greeted with alarm.
“Microsoft’s action is wrong. The entire media ecosystem has condemned this action,” read part of a letter to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer from the Association of National Advertisers. “It is time to realign with the broader business community by providing choice through a default of ‘off’ on your browser’s ‘do not track’ setting.” (Full disclosure: eWEEK.com is an advertiser-supported Website so I am probably biting the hand that feeds me on this subject.)
Microsoft is so far sticking with its decision. After accommodating advertisers by making consumers work to activate Do Not Track, it has taken the opposite stance, opting for consumer privacy first. “It underscores that the privacy of our customers is a top priority for Microsoft,” wrote Brandon Lynch, chief privacy officer for Microsoft, in a blog post.
To be sure, selling ad space alongside Web content is why most of the Internet can be accessed for free and the advertising model to subsidize the cost of delivering content has worked well for television, radio, newspapers and magazines for decades. But, according to an article in the Oct. 14 edition of The New York Times, ads delivered to one Web page can come from any number of third-party sites of which the consumer knows little.
If a user searches the word “cancer” in their browser, for instance, they may not want information collected in some third party’s database that they may be a cancer patient, even if the information is not linked to them specifically. If they want to maintain their privacy, they shouldn’t have to go through a series of screens and flip multiple levers to accomplish that.
As it is, it’s still unclear what the practical meaning of Do Not Track is to advertisers. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is working with the international World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to develop global standards for what Do Not Track actually means. Some think it prohibits delivering ads to an IE 10 browser while others think it’s only an advisory to the advertiser.
I think advertisers can find a way to deliver their message and respect users’ privacy and many of them recognize that they have an obligation to do that. In the end, Web advertising is like water. It can find a way around whatever obstacle it faces.