IE 10's 'Do Not Track' Setting Under Attack
According to the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), Internet Explorer 10's Do Not Track" (DNT) setting will adversely hurt the quality and quantity Internet content.
The ANA's board of directors comprises executives from major companies including Dell, Intel, Adobe, IBM and Wal-Mart. In a letter sent to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and other Redmond executives on Monday, the ANA board warned that IE 10's default DNT setting "will undercut the effectiveness of our members' advertising and, as a result, drastically damage the online experience by reducing the Internet content and offerings that such advertising supports. This result will harm consumers, hurt competition, and undermine American innovation and leadership in the Internet economy."
DNT is designed to give browser users control over when and how their online behavior can be used as data for advertisers. When DNT is turned on during a browsing session, the browser sends a signal to Web advertisers indicating that the user does not want his or her data to be tracked.
DNT is enabled in some form on four of the top five browsers in the United States: IE, Firefox, Safari and Opera. Microsoft first included DNT in last year's release of IE 9; however, users were required to turn the feature on beforehand. For IE 10, which is expected to ship with Windows 8 later this month, Microsoft is making DNT the default setting -- the first browser maker to do so, according to the company.
Microsoft announced the decision to make DNT the default setting in late May, when the Windows 8 "release preview" version was made available. In a blog post at the time, Microsoft Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch explained that the goal is not to stifle the online advertising market, but to provide more transparency to users:
"We believe that consumers should have more control over how information about their online behavior is tracked, shared and used. Online advertising is an important part of the economy supporting publishers and content owners and helping businesses of all shapes and sizes to go to market. There is also value for consumers in personalized experiences and receiving advertising that is relevant to them.
"Of course, we hope that many consumers will see this value and make a conscious choice to share information in order to receive more personalized ad content. For us, that is the key distinction. Consumers should be empowered to make an informed choice and, for these reasons, we believe that for IE10 in Windows 8, a privacy-by-default state for online behavioral advertising is the right approach."
Even though IE 10 users will have the option to turn off DNT, the ANA contends that having it as the default setting strongly discourages users from doing so, and would hurt not just advertisers but also consumers. According to the ANA, the effect would be the same as that of giving TV viewers the option to reduce advertising during programs; however tempting the proposition, cutting advertising would hurt TV's viability as a business model, which could threaten the shows viewers want to watch.
"Similarly, the choice that consumers actually face [in having DNT as the default setting in IE 10] is between continuing to allow advertising to subsidize Internet offerings, or paying more for offerings that they currently enjoy for free or at a low cost," the ANA letter reads.
However, as ZDNet's Ed Bott pointed out in his analysis of the ANA's letter, TV ads don't employ the type of behavioral tracking that online ads do.
"That argument is ludicrous. Enabling Do Not Track will not stop advertising. In fact, the comparison to television advertising undermines the ANA's position completely," Bott wrote. "Ad-supported television networks are able to survive without having any form of data collection to target ads to individual sets. Why is Internet advertising different?"
The ANA is entreating Microsoft to switch back to an opt-out process in which the DNT feature must be activated by the user instead of being already enabled. The letter pointed out that during recent Senate hearings to debate DNT, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission also expressed support for an opt-out approach. In a statement to Advertising Age, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said, "My position is clear: I support an easy, persistent opt out on third-party tracking that limits collection with a few exceptions, such as security."
Muddying the debate are questions regarding how Web sites and advertisers will honor DNT signals, if at all. For instance, the Apache Software Foundation, which the ANA mentions in its letter as an opponent of Microsoft's DNT approach, has stated that it intends for its software to ignore DNT signals from IE 10 browsers.
"At the moment there is not yet an agreed definition of how to respond to a DNT signal, and we know that a uniform, industry-wide response will be the best way to provide a consistent consumer experience across the Web," conceded Microsoft's Lynch in his blog post. He added that Microsoft is working with advertising, government and standards groups to develop a uniform process for recognizing DNT signals.
The ANA said it is willing to "engage in direct conversation" with Microsoft regarding DNT. For its part, Microsoft has not responded directly to the ANA's letter. However, in a September editorial in Adweek, Microsoft advertising executive Rik van der Kooi said that the fuss over whether DNT is a default setting only distracts from the larger goal of improving Web advertising and customer experience.
"Instead of debating whether DNT is 'on' or 'off,' we should redouble our efforts as an industry and educate consumers about how advertising pays for the free Web experience we all now enjoy; how much richer people's Web experiences can be if they share their data with trusted partners; and how they can increasingly manage the data they generate," Kooi wrote. "If nothing else, DNT should serve as an accelerant to something that everyone in the business of digital advertising wants to see: greater consumer understanding of and desire to participate in the value exchange."