I’ve got to give it to the privacy advocates—for all their complaints about advertising, they are some of the world’s best marketers. Consider the success of an idea like “Privacy by Design” which is a feel-good buzzword, but is virtually meaningless as practical policy. But the biggest marketing success among privacy advocates has got to be “Do Not Track”, a fundamentally flawed concept which has proved itself resilient mostly because of its passing resemblance to the incredibly popular, but wholly unrelated, “Do Not Call” list.
The notion that “Do Not Track” is related to “Do Not Call” is an idea that simply refuses to die. I saw this most recently in an article in The New York Times about Peter Swire who was just named the new co-chair of the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group, the group working to create a “Do Not Track” standard. The article states:
“Mr. Swire, a former chief counselor for privacy at the Office of Management and Budget, said he hoped to strike a balance that was palatable to both sides. He said he viewed a Do Not Track system as a kind of digital equivalent to the Do Not Call list, a national registry in the United States through which consumers may opt out of phone solicitations.
‘People can choose not to have telemarketers call them during dinner. The simple idea is that users should have a choice over how their Internet browsing works as well,’ Mr. Swire said in a phone interview.”
While it is true that “Do Not Track” and “Do Not Call” have a similar name, the similarity ends there. There are two major differences between Do Not Call and Do Not Track. The first is that advertising does not pay for “free content” on your telephone, but it does pay for this on the Internet. The telephone system would continue to work as we know it without telemarketing; the Internet that we have today does not work without advertising. The second is that telemarketing calls are an annoying interruption for most people, while targeted web ads are innocuous.
As I’ve explained before, when consumers choose to opt out of unsolicited telemarketing calls they are not at the same time receiving some free service that is linked to the telephone call. It would be one thing if, for example, the telephone company said in exchange for free telephone service marketers get to call your phone multiple times every evening at dinner time. But that is not the deal. There is no quid pro quo. These unsolicited calls are simply an added cost to the economy and an annoyance to most consumers. So it makes sense to have an easy-to-use opt out system for unsolicited telephone calls.
In contrast, “Do Not Track” is like getting the free telephone service without taking the marketing calls. When consumers go online, in the vast majority of cases they are receiving some free content or service (e.g., email, search, data storage, social networking, news, information, entertainment, etc.). The way they “pay” for these free services is by agreeing to be shown advertisements. And to cover the cost of all of these services companies increasingly need to show ads that are actually of interest to consumers by using targeted advertising. If consumers opt-out of the targeted ads that are paying for their access to a free website, then they should not get access to that site (or they should have to pay for the site in some other way such as through a subscription or micro-payments). Otherwise these consumers are trying to get something for nothing.
And that is exactly what some privacy advocates want. They want consumers to get access to a cornucopia of free content while having “corporations” pay the bill. The problem is that if everyone acts in their own selfish interest, the collective good—in this case a robust and free Internet—shrinks, to the detriment of all of us.
Of course this is certainly not the first time this comparison has been made (and sadly it likely won’t be the last). But it is disturbing to see this comparison made within the W3C working group where this distinction should be clear. I hope as the W3C working group continues in its efforts, it also works to clarify not only what “Do Not Track” is, but also what it isn’t.