Is "Do Not Track" Good or Bad for PSPs?

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about The “Do Not Track” movement in the past week. While it kicked off a couple of years ago (the Internet equivalent of the “Do Not Mail” program that so raised hackles in the print world) it hadn’t been a top-of-mind issue for many until last week when the White House and the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) both issued major announcements that are likely to have far reaching effects for anyone engaged in integrated/online marketing (or even just with a website.)

On Thursday, February 23rd, the Obama Administation published its ‘blueprint for how to protect privacy in a networked society,” in the report Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy. The report states that while consumer data privacy protection is strong in the U.S. there are two exceptions, including “a clear statement of basic privacy principles that apply to the commercial world, and a sustained commitment of all stakeholders to address consumer data privacy issues as they arise from advances in technologies and business models.” Meaning, of course, data collection and tracking on the Internet.

To address this, the report sets forth a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights applies to personal data, meaning any data that can be linked to a specific individual. These key rights include:

1. INDIVIDUAL CONTROL: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.

2. TRANSPARENCY: Consumers have a right to easily understandable and accessible infor­mation about privacy and security practices.

3. RESPECT FOR CONTEXT: Consumers have a right to expect that companies will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

4. SECURITY: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

5. ACCESS AND ACCURACY: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data is inaccurate.

6. FOCUSED COLLECTION: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

7. ACCOUNTABILITY: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

The report makes it very clear that the Administration intends to convert The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights into law. In the introductory letter, President Obama calls on organizations that handle personal data, “to begin immedi­ately working with privacy advocates, consumer protection enforcement agencies, and others to implement these principles in enforceable codes of conduct.”

It’s no coincidence then that the same day the DAA, a consortium of Internet heavyweights that agree to self-regulate online behavior advertising (including Google, Microsoft and hundreds of others in ad networks, associations, consumer product companies and media giants) announced an agreement to voluntarily create a universal “Do Not Track” button, in all likelihood to ward off legislation to force the same. The group promised this button to be available in nine month’s time. Whether this voluntary action can prevent legislative action is questionable. Check out the DAA’s statement of purpose at the organization’s website.

Some in the industry are already saying that this Do Not Track movement could drive marketers back to print — but it is naïve to think that this will happen en masse. The digital movement is a giant snowball rolling downhill and this legislation is not got to stop it. What we should consider is what this type of action could mean to those that offer print e-commerce sites or integrated marketing campaigns that track user activity and preferences. That’s what Purl’s, QR codes and similar technologies we’ve been adopting as part of the “marketing service provider” services do. The fact is that the Do Not Track movement can have a negative impact on one of the activities that many in the industry view as part of our evolution to provide a wider body of services.

There are already options to prevent tracking in several browsers. In Firefox, for example, there’s an option to “Tell websites I don’t want to be tracked” in the Privacy preferences. There are also 3rd party plugins that detect and prevent tracking, including the freely downloadable DNT+ from Abine, Inc. The DNT button appears in the browser toolbar. Each time you visit a website, the button displays a number showing that the visited site is sending data about your visit to other tracking companies. A click on the button opens a window that shows just which companies would have accessed your information had you not installed the software. All of this seems empowering as a consumer, but what does it mean for people visiting your website? DNT+ blocks companies like Google Analytics and Quantcast, resources most people use to track visits to (and the viability of) their websites.

Opponents of the Do Not Track movement say this can spell the end of the “free” web, as so many sites are funded by ad revenue. A recent visit to an ad-supported site, MakeUseOf.com, with the DNT plugin installed generated a giant red banner at the top of the displayed page stating “It looks like you've got Ad-block enabled. While we respect your decision and choice of plugin, we humbly ask that you add MakeUseOf.com to the ad-block whitelist. Without the revenue generated from advertising, we would be unable to provide this great content free of charge. If everyone ran ad-block, MakeUseOf would be no more.”

It’s something to think about.

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