The tracks of my fears
Advertisers say that if they can’t track you online, your favorite websites will die. They’re wrong.
There is lots of bad TV, and lots of bad Internet. Reducing either would be a public service of incalculable proportions. But just as some broadcasters raise the possibility of Armageddon if ad-avoiding tech like TiVo proliferates, online marketers are now making the same empty threats about the Internet. They say that rich Internet “content” would disappear if something called Do Not Track became the standard.
Do Not Track isn’t the default setting of any major Web browser, even though all offer the option to “opt-in” to a private life — to send a signal to advertisers that, on this occasion, in this window, at this time I don’t want you to make use of my surfing behavior to profile me for the sole purpose of creating ads that marketers think have greater personal appeal and are more valuable.
Opting in is going to be the default in the next version of Microsoft’s ubiquitous Internet Explorer Web browser, due out any time now. Many thought Microsoft would be our best hope to change the balance of power (how the tables have turned!), of not having to take extra precautions to prevent an intrusion to which we really should not be subjected. But Microsoft’s bullheadedness (on behalf of users for a change) has prompted the advertising community to decide to ignore Internet Explorer 10’s “do not track” signal. This means, ironically, that IE 10 will be worthless as the pioneering stealth browser it was meant to be.
That the advertisers are pushing back, declaring what amounts to thermonuclear war in the privacy campaign, might raise the profile of a critical issue. Until now it’s been so far under the radar that most people a) don’t know that they have privacy controls on their browsers and b) don’t know they need them.
The Do Not Track debate comes down to this: Unless you take precautions (or the browser maker does), where you go and what you do can be used to, among other things, allow marketers to follow you around with ads they think are highly relevant to you. Making Do Not Track voluntary means that (because we are lazy, easily distracted humans) there will be more people being tracked. Making it obligatory means advertisers would have to convince the general public that being spied on is worth it. It’s laundry they are desperate not to air in public, because, given such a simple choice, few would opt for living in a glass house.
Browsers have different ways of giving you control — Google Chrome allows you to create “incognito” sessions. Apple’s Safari has an option for “Private Browsing,” as does Mozilla’s Firefox. You have to know they are there, and choose them.
The 800-pound gorilla is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which owns half of the world, and which decided to show some spunk on behalf of the little guy, for a change. It created shockwaves by signaling, by default, that every browsing session in its new browser is meant to be hands-off. This was a big freaking deal. Proof: The advertising community got upset, claiming that getting rid of tracking would get rid of the Web. Sites wouldn’t be able to afford upkeep without the personal-data-filled ads that keep them in business.
The warnings of the self-interested fear mongers are probably right about one thing — there would be fewer websites. But they are wrong about the impact. Paring the glut of junk ads that we wade through now would leave us with a healthier Internet. Content-farm garbage — those drivel-filled how-to “articles” that somehow bubble to the top of searches — would dissipate, in turn giving Google better things to do than reprogram its algorithms to turn a blind eye. We’d be more private, and be barraged by less drek. It’s a win-win.
Less is not a bad thing. Infinite options are not a sign of quality, only of abundance (my editor reminds me this also applies to the crowded New York City bar scene). And on the Web, as in TV, that means an abundance of advertisers. The Web, like every robust medium, is unique, largely supported by selling an audience to third parties. But unlike TV, the Web began as a commercial-free zone and thrived before it became a marketing playground, before the big corporations moved in and developed that pristine landscape with more resorts, gas stations and banks. Neon signs, once frowned upon, abound.
The Internet will be just fine, thank you, without those eyesores. The invasive, keystroke-logging corporate culture that threatens to take its ball and go home isn’t actually paying for much quality. The sites you love are not going to be threatened if the junk circus leaves town. Only the bottom-feeders will.
Publishers aren’t keen to go on the record with this point of view, but it’s hardly a secret to the marquee content sites that they’d benefit with less crappy competition and fewer crappy ad networks.
“Opposition to DNT is this cockamamie claim that individuals would not be able to have ads targeted to them,” one prominent print and digital publisher told me. “But the people who really lose out if DNT is implemented are the ad networks who simply buy cheap targeted eyeballs.” This is what New York Times reporter Natasha Singer has poetically dubbed “the surveillance economy.”
“As it currently stands, the Web is simply about buying audiences,” the executive said. “Implementing DNT would enable them to target communities — and more creatively.
TiVo’s ultra-fast-forward and Dish’s “Auto Hop” — and premium TV services like HBO and government-subsidized programmers like the BBC — have recalibrated the balance of power between buyer and seller on the world’s most successful ad-supported medium. Do Not Track similarly holds the promise of a better economic model that would increase quality by making advertising dollars scarcer.
There would be fewer things on the Web — which is exactly what the advertisers are threatening. Thing is, fewer trees makes for a more friendly forest.
Without more consumer control over TV, do you think we’d have more Breaking Bad — or My Mother The Car? Think about it. There is, arguably, more bad TV post-Tivo, but it is mostly of the reality sort, the kind of TV that costs a fraction of episodic and serial programming — an economy that is itself a ramification of viewer fragmentation. And (because of DVRs) it is easily avoidable.
Even if the Web’s sludge somehow managed to survive, is there any chance the sites you value would disappear under Do Not Track? Or will there instead be even more of them?