Do Not Track is a policy proposal turned technical mechanism that enables users to opt out of tracking from websites they do not directly visit, including analytics services, advertising networks, and social platforms. It is different from the “Do Not Call” list as it is not a list, but rather works though a signal sent from a user’s browser.
For the basic implementation of Do Not Track, the browser signals to websites a “Do Not Track” HTTP header every time a user’s data is requested from the website. The website is then supposed to follow the command and not deliver targeted advertisements based on the information. In addition to the simple browser signal, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), an industry coalition of media and marketing associations, has developed a mechanism that places an imbedded icon in behaviorally targeted online ads. When a user click the icon, he or she is shown how the ad was targeted and delivered and then given an opportunity to opt out of such advertising. The DAA approach would allow consumers to opt out of ads either 1) through the icon or 2) through settings on their web browser. Mozilla, Microsoft, and Apple have already implemented some of these ideas into their browsers and Google is slated to incorporate some form of Chrome by the end of 2012.
Importantly, with Do Not Track protections turned on, consumers will still see advertisements and their information will still be tracked and used by websites they visit directly. For instance, when a consumer shops on Amazon, the consumer’s page history will still be tracked by Amazon, leading to targeted advertising on the Amazon site. However with Do Not Track in place, third-party advertisement providers will not be able to use that information for more targeted advertising.
A major problem with the current implementation of Do Not Track is that currently websites are not required to comply with the requests, neither by law nor by any broad social consensus. Therefore very few websites recognize and respect this privacy signal. However, Yahoo recently announced that it would be implementing a Do Not Track protocol to its websites. In addition, as the major browser providers are adopting this approach and with some very vocal entities such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Federal Trade Commission supporting implementation, the push for legislation regarding Do Not Track is heating up. There was a Senate bill introduced in May of 2011, however we expect to see further push for this type of legislation in the near future.
Of course with any issue regarding privacy, there is contention over the both the merits and implementation of legislation. Representative Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican and subcommittee chairwoman, doubts the necessity for Do Not Track and stated, “Where is the public outcry for legislation? Today, I’m simply not hearing it. I haven’t gotten a single letter from anyone back home urging me to pass a privacy bill.” Meanwhile, the Stanford University Laboratory, a vocal supporter of Do Not Track, and entity that runs the donottrack.us website argued in a comment to the FTC that consumers overwhelmingly desire more privacy protections on the internet. They also state that Do Not Track would affect only a small amount of the online advertising market, funds that they suggest would just be funneled in a different direction.
While the Do Not Track protocol and implementation is still being worked out and will likely require legislative intervention to force compliance from websites and advertisement services, with the further call for legislation by the FTC it is likely that the Do Not Track movement will continue to pick up steam and will soon lead to a major legislative push.
What This Means for Business
For most startups and other companies, Do Not Track legislation should not have too much effect on day-to-day operations. For companies that are actually in the business of online advertising that uses non-visitor tracking, then such companies will of course need to closely conform their conduct to the language of any passed legislation. Additionally, it may be smart for these companies to implement Do Not Track mechanisms now as the public will likely soon become more informed about the Do Not Track push. Companies that currently pay for online advertising using non-visitor tracking might want to consider other forms of online advertising because with the passage of Do Not Track legislation and with many consumers likely choosing the Do Not Track option, such ads will been seen by far fewer eyes and thus be less lucrative.