Empowering the Consumer in the Online Data Conversation

September 19, 2012

In a recent Adweek contribution [Subscription Required] (September 10), a representative from Microsoft explained why the company decided to turn on a “Do Not Track” (DNT) feature in its latest version of Internet Explorer browser, Version 10, which arrives this fall.  Microsoft is making a huge mistake – and setting a dangerous precedent – that seems to say “information” has no role to play in our “information economy.”

Let’s make this perfectly clear:  DNT accelerates and fans the flames of fear and confusion in the advertising community and with consumers. It may be a good sound bite, but it is a poor policy for the long-term health of the ad-supported internet and relevant advertising. Generic advertising here we come!   

Critics of interest-based ads state that, at least in the past, consumers had been in the dark about how online advertisers use data. The trouble is that Microsoft’s DNT decision (or, for that matter, any browser’s similar implementation) doesn’t correct the situation. It exacerbates it.

Why not educate consumers about interest-based ads, and give them their own choice to opt-out, or opt-down?  That’s what we do on the Digital Advertising Alliance site, YourAdChoices.com, and millions of consumers have visited this free education-based option. The choice is made by the consumer, and it is an informed choice.

Microsoft claims that its DNT decision is designed to further educate consumers about the value exchange that comes with online advertising. We shouldn’t debate turning DNT on or off, Microsoft maintains, but instead “redouble our efforts as an industry and educate consumers about how advertising pay[s] for the free web experience we all now enjoy.]”  But how can that be?  Advertisers want smart ads – and the Internet helps deliver that; an activated DNT would seem to shut that possibility down at the start. Furthermore, the education effort should be aimed at calming fears about privacy while delivering value to brands and consumers, not fanning the flames of the debate.

The sites consumers rely on – those that deliver weather, news, and social experiences – all rely on data to fuel their ad revenue. A Do-Not-Track signal, established in the express settings of a browser, effectively eliminates available data.  In turn, this puts at risk a significant amount of ad revenue available to such free or ad-supported sites.

DNT, the way Microsoft is pursuing it, also fails to advance its stated goal of bringing brands and consumers closer together. Rather, this is a piece of technology acting as a wedge between brands and consumers, and no one benefits when resulting ads are wasted and off the mark. We believe, as we hope Microsoft and other tech companies believe, that technology should empower brand and consumer engagement in an increasingly customer-centric world, not disrupt it.

Consumers need to answer questions about privacy and data usage as individuals, and that’s why education is at the heart of the Digital Advertising Alliance’s efforts, and its consumer web site, YourAdChoices.com. Building a sense of trust about responsible data practices and a strong bond between a brand and consumer can only come from transparency and choice. DNT, instead, offers one answer for everyone, with transparency, accountability and choice noticeably absent from the equation, and “blinded” marketing the only possible result.

The age of “digital enlightenment” is already upon us, thanks in large part to the DAA’s AdChoices icon initiative. Transparency is the new norm, and if consumers are curious about why they see an ad, the icon allows them to pursue their inquisitiveness.  If not, this consumer option remains open to revisit at any time, and in real-time – it appears in the ads of brands who have signed up to responsible and enforceable data use practices at least 1 trillion times a month.

Furthermore, our education campaign, the Your AdChoices site, is visited more than 1 million times a month (we’re up to more than 10 million unique visits to date) by consumers who are interested and whom we are educating about the value exchange taking place online. These consumers are in turn are afforded the opportunity to make enforceable choices in real-time.

Another issue with Microsoft’s DNT strategy, beyond the risks to ad revenue, is that it fails to function as a privacy mechanism, because of the lack of enforceability, a hallmark of any privacy initiative. The DAA effort is enforceable, and the Council of Better Business Bureau has already brought a dozen actions. It’s easy enough to throw out technology solutions, but without the necessary groundwork to enforce consumer decisions, they do little good in the long run.

While we all should support more education and more transparency, the implementation of a Do-Not-Track setting by default on any browser does the opposite.  The exchange implicit in the “rich web experience” that consumers enjoy requires the precise data exchange that DNT prevents.  The only thing DNT by default would accelerate is fear and confusion among consumers, darkening the ecosystem that the entire industry has been illuminating through an industry self-regulatory program for two years.

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