Legislation winding its way through Congress is poised to introduce a Do-Not-Track list. This would allow people to put themselves on a list that would turn off any tracking component used in behavioral marketing. Letting consumers choose whether they’d like their Internet behavior to be tracked is a great and valuable tool—which is why the market is doing a much better job of this than the government ever possibly could.
The introduction of this bill is startling, because it introduces an onerous government regulation into an area of advertising that finally gives small business owners a foothold into an arena where they were previously absent. Small business owners can’t afford to waste their advertising budgets on million-dollar blanket ad buys across multiple high-dollar websites in the same way that large corporations can. Behavioral advertising levels the playing field, and allows the small guys to target a specific audience they wouldn’t have otherwise, all while keeping their costs low. At the same time, it’s a big win for consumers, because it gives more choice for consumers. Consumers are served ads from both big corporations and the small business down the street. This choice brings added competition and lower prices for consumers.
Several policy groups are paying attention. The Technology Policy Institute recently held a briefing on the Department of Commerce and Federal Trade Commission privacy reports, the latter of which endorses a Do Not Track mechanism. Adam Thierer of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University submitted a thirty-page comment in response to the FTC report, in which he points out that there has been no evidence of harm as a result of data collection or online tracking.
In response to consumer demand, many web companies are already building Do-Not-Track components into the latest releases of their browsers. One company far ahead of the curve on this issue is Microsoft, who had previously been attacked by privacy rights groups for removing some of its popular privacy aids in Internet Explorer (IE) 8. The company has promised to make Congress’ “Do-Not-Track” tool look outdated before it even comes into existence. As Microsoft spokeswoman Jackie Lawrence explains:
Tracking protection is a new feature coming in the release candidate of IE9 that helps protect a user’s privacy. The feature puts people more in control of what data they share as they browse, and gives them the option of preventing data from being observed externally by third-party sites.
The company has already released its initial plans for IE9’s tracking tools to the World Wide Web Consortium for adoption into best practices. The announcement caused quite a stir in the last few days, especially when paired with comments like those of Microsoft VP Dean Hachamovitch:
Instead of just asking a site, ‘please don’t track me,’ we can just block that content, and pre-empt that tracking.
As we can see, the private market can innovate not only far faster than the government, but also far better. The question then becomes: Should the government be the arbiter of what’s acceptable on the Internet, or should we leave it to the consumer choice?
Perhaps the best answer lies in the results of a recent poll on this topic. The Opera-sponsored poll asked people which group poses the greatest threat to their online privacy. The answer? Not behavioral ads, not retail stores, but government; consumers feel the greatest threat to online privacy comes from the very body that plans to protect us by increasing their own powers online.
Zack Christenson is a Chicago-based digital strategist who writes on tech policy.