Nearly a year has gone by since I wrote about how online advertising is trusted less than any other form of advertising. Unfortunately, nothing has happened to change this. In fact, consumer privacy concerns have risen. Concerned parties have spent a long time coalescing around a standard for giving consumers more control over online data collection, and that's come in the form of Do Not Track.
Now people are saying DNT is dead. Yet, despite the copious speculation about the fate of Do Not Track, no-one else is going to tell you this: It's actually the excuses for why Do Not Track won't work that are being eliminated.
Excuse No. 1: "Do Not Track must represent consumer choice."
When Microsoft announced in 2012 that it would turn on Do Not Track by default in Internet Explorer, the industry vehemently argued the signal would no longer indicate user choice. Of course, common sense counters that. I'd argue consumers have no reasonable way to opt out of cross-site tracking, which gathers behavioral data for targeting. So the entire industry is assuming consumers want to be tracked by default. A 2014 Pew study found 91% of adults agreed or strongly agreed that consumers have lost control over how their personal data is collected and used by companies.
Do Not Track will represent consumer choice. Tucked into the quiet Easter and Passover holiday news cycle, Microsoft announced on Friday it will no longer set DNT on by default and instead would market the Do Not Track setting to consumers so that they can explicitly turn it on. This puts Microsoft's approach into compliance with the latest standard drafted by the World Wide Web Consortium. Also known as W3C, this international community has been developing a DNT standard for years; its draft released earlier this week states that a DNT preference "must reflect the user's preference, not the choice of some vendor, institution, site, or network-imposed mechanism outside the user's control…. In the absence of user choice, there is no tracking preference expressed."
Excuse No. 2: "We don't know what Do Not Track means."
Since a true industry standard has not been determined, many have clung to ignorance of Do Not Track as a defense.
The W3C will release the final Do Not Track standard for approval this month. And frankly, since many of the definitions have remained the same for going on two years, there's no excuse for not having a pretty good sense of where this is going to end up. By the way, for those who question the role of the W3C, we should all remember that without the W3C, the international standards setter for the web, there would be no web as we know it. Respect.
Excuse No. 3: "DNT will destroy the web since much of the free content is funded by online behavioral advertising reliant on consumer data collection."
Nothing could be further from the truth. As the leader of an association comprised of approximately sixty great media brands producing much of the quality digital content out there today, constraints on collecting third-party data across the web will be immaterial to what funds this type of content. And, in fact, this is the case for most content producers whether small or large.
Excuse No. 4: "No one will honor the DNT signal."
As with other W3C initiatives, there will be no legal requirement to abide by the proposed standards. But consumers are demanding privacy solutions more than ever before. Since its original specification, DNT has been the most simple and elegant solution available. The industry needs to demonstrate that it can and will honor consumer choice to begin to repair trust, slow the penetration of destructive ad blocking software, and pave the way for more innovation and the benefits that will inevitably come with the Internet of Things. The best way for this to happen will be through self-regulation honoring the Do Not Track signal. Short of that we risk regulation coming through a state or at some point federal regulators.
Excuse No. 5: "This will only make Google and Facebook stronger."
In reality, Google and Facebook will have the same responsibility as any third-party tracker. They'll be required to honor DNT and will need to obtain explicit consent to go back to tracking everything across the web. Yes, both companies, due to their extensive services, will be in an advantaged position to ask for this consent, but it will come with heightened responsibility as is the burden of any first-party relationship. And the reality is they already run a pretty fine duopoly built off the status quo.
It's time for the industry to consider its future rather than protecting the eroding business interests of its incumbent and faceless technology complex. Consumer tools such as Do Not Track can only help build the foundation of trust on which our future success will be built.