Why Web Giants would benefit from a ‘do not track’ policy

December 2, 2010

The Federal Trade Commission has issued a report recommending that browsers include a “Do Not Track” mechanism that would allow people to surf the web without sites collecting and sharing data about their activities. In the same way that the “Do Not Call” list hampered that ability of some (but alas, not all) telemarketers to interrupt our dinners with unwanted calls, the idea sounds like bad news for web sites that target ads based on such data.

But in the end, such a move could be just what web giants like Google and Facebook need to get their users to opt in to sharing data, rather than opting out.

Opting out of telemarketing calls is a fairly black and white decision. You either hate them or you don’t mind them. But online privacy is a much murkier affair. On the one hand, behavioral data can help sites serve ads or deliver sponsored-search results that are – theoretically, at least – of interest. Increasingly, they are being used to improve the web experiences as well, whether it’s Netflix using your viewing history to recommend new movies, or apps like Foursquare using geolocation.

But on the other hand, there is the creep factor inherent in knowing that your actions are being tracked. Tracking technologies are growing more sophisticated, and more intrusive, as evidenced by Flash cookies, fingerprinting devices and sites tracking your browsing history. Many users don’t know just how intimately they are being watched by complete strangers on the web.

Giving people a simple mechanism of control over whether and when they are tracked would reduce the creep factor. A Do Not Track mechanism would need to allow people to be tracked by sites they trust, just as a Do Not Call list doesn’t blindly filter out calls from, say, a company or organization you trust.

That could be good news for Google, Facebook and others, which have argued that they want our personal data to make their sites more useful. If they’re right, users will have a chance to opt out easily and find out for themselves. And if the benefits of sharing data with select sites prove to be greater than the risks, the number of people who don’t want to be tracked may be insignificantly small.

One comment

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I, for one, believe that “tracking” us is a violation of our Constitutional rights. I do not understand how, in the name of marketing, that this American Right can be so casually stolen from us. If we wanted someone to know our every move we would tell them ourselves. I have experienced violent people having the ability to “stalk” me because of the insecurity of mobile phones and internet usage. The police had to deal with this issue to keep me safe. Who keeps us safe from marketing stalkers? Or other internet users?

Posted by SarahLynn | Report as abusive