CookieLaw Blog October 11, 2012

The Real Risks of Derailing Do Not Track

In the last few weeks, the tensions around the agreement of a Do Not Track (DNT) standard have heightened considerably, and there appears to be a real risk of the whole initiative becoming meaningless.

I mentioned a few weeks ago how Microsoft’s decision to release IE10 in Windows 8 with DNT on as the express install setting resulted in a fierce public outcry from the online advertising community.

Since then the arguments have if anything been intensifying, and positions becoming more entrenched.

A recent meeting of the W3C group tasked with defining what DNT should mean, appears to have broken up with privacy and digital advertising representatives on the group with seemingly intractable opposing views.

Privacy advocates argue that advertisers are trying to water down the standard so that DNT becomes almost meaningless, and allowing them to continue to collect and make commercial use of web user data.

Advertisers for their part accuse the privacy community of trying to destroy the web’s most successful business model – and in the process risking a collapse of the internet as we know it today.

In the last few days the Digital Advertising Alliance has written an open letter to the W3C opposing the current standard efforts, and issued advice to marketers that they can ignore with impunity any DNT request from an IE10 user.

Meanwhile regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are beginning to show their frustrations.  In  the text of a speech to be given by Neelie Kroes today, the European Commission’s Digital Agenda chief will say that she is deeply concerned about how the standard appears at risk of being watered down to the benefit of business over the interests of consumer privacy.

In short, it is all getting to become a rather ugly power struggle. And when this happens, the group most at risk of losing out is the one that doesn’t have much of a voice – the ordinary consumer.

The problem is, the moment you forget to think about the man or woman on the street, that is when you risk alienating and then losing them, in vast numbers.

The Berkley Centre for Law and Technology has this week published the results of a survey in to consumer awareness of online privacy. Reported on by the New York Times, it shows that most nearly 90% of people had never heard of Do Not Track.

However, when asked what they thought a Do Not Track option in a browser should mean, 60% chose a response of ‘prevent web sites from collecting information‘.

Even the strictest proposed version of the DNT standard goes nowhere near to fulfilling this kind of expectation.  This disconnect between reality (whatever it turns out to be) and consumer expectation is the real risk of a failure to have a meaningful DNT standard.

Because if consumers feel they are being hoodwinked into believing they are being given one choice, when in fact it is another, much weaker one, it will only serve to increase mistrust of business – and most particularly the advertising industry.

And trust between different groups, as anyone knows, is not just the cornerstone of good business, but a fundamental construct of an open and free society.

If awareness of Do Not Track becomes widespread, but the reality of its meaning does not reflect the expectations of users, that is what is most likely to lead to the kind of change that the big advertisers are worried about.  So it may prove to be that their current stance in trying to protect entrenched interests, will sow the seeds of their own destruction.

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