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BLOG: Ad industry to Web: Trust us, we're lying

Robert X. Cringely | Oct. 12, 2012
You say you don't want dozens of obscure companies recording every website you visit. What are you -- a commie?

The battle over the Do Not Track standard called for by the FTC last year and currently being wrangled over by privacy wonks and the ad industry apparently isn't going so well. Simple reason? Privacy wonks want Do Not Track (DNT) to actually let people avoid being tracked; the ad industry, not so much.

This battle has now reached epic levels of absurdity. As ZDnet's Ed Bott notes, the online ad industry appears to borrowing from Lewis Carroll, Terry Gilliam, and George Orwell in its efforts to derail DNT.

A few days ago, the W3C group working on the DNT standard received a listserv email from Rachel N. Thomas, VP of government affairs for the Direct Marketing Association, the uber-trade group for pretty much all forms of marketing, including telemarketing and junk mail.

Her suggestion: Allow people who say, "Don't track me, bro," to still have their data used for marketing purposes. That's a little like telling a vegan that he can eat anything he likes as long as there's hamburger in it.

When other members of the group asked, in polite fashion, if Thomas had been smoking crack, she replied thusly:

Marketing fuels the world. It is as American as apple pie and delivers relevant advertising to consumers about products they will be interested at a time they are interested. DNT should permit it as one of the most important values of civil society. Its byproduct also furthers democracy, free speech, and -- most importantly in these times -- JOBS. It is as critical to society -- and the economy -- as fraud prevention and IP protection and should be treated the same way.

Marketing as a permitted use would allow the use of the data to send relevant offers to consumers through specific devices they have used. The data could not be used for other purposes, such as eligibility for employment, insurance, etc. Thus, we move to a harm consideration. Ads and offers are just offers -- users/consumers can simply not respond to those offers - there is no associated harm.

Further, DNT can stop all unnecessary uses of data using choice and for those consumers who do not want relevant marketing the can use the persistent Digital Advertising Alliance choice mechanism. This mechanism has been in place for 2 years.

In other words: If you allow Do Not Track to operate as intended, the terrorists win.

This is hardly the first time the ad industry has gone Looney Tunes on the topic of DNT. Remember: The key benefit to tracking you is supposed to be "more interesting ads." In other words, if you go to or Edmunds shopping for cars, you're more likely to see automotive ads when you visit or even InfoWorld.


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