OPINION

Internet Tracking May Not Be Worth the Headaches

In the ongoing argument about whether the government should pass laws to prohibit companies from tracking Internets users’ browsing habits, one voice has been conspicuously absent — the voice of actual Internet users.

Both the government agencies and public advocacy groups that have been pushing for the tracking ban claim to be acting in the interest of average users. To this point, however, I haven’t seen much evidence that either of these entities has actually asked Internet users if they feel the need to be protected from online tracking technology.

We got an inkling of what average users think about this topic last week with the release of a Gallup Poll that sought to gauge how Internet users feel about having their online habits tracked by advertisers wishing to serve up targeted ads.

Gallup conducted the poll — which involved telephone interviews with 1,019 U.S residents aged 18 and older — the week of December 10. That happened to be the same week the U.S. Congress was holding hearings on a proposal for implementing a Do Not Track List.

Users Prefer to be Left Alone

If Congress had waited until the results of the Gallup poll were released, it would have found there is indeed consumer sentiment for curbing the practice of tracking browsing behavior. Sixty seven percent of Americans don’t believe advertisers should be allowed to use their browsing habits to determine which ads they should see, according to the survey’s results.

The disfavor with online tracking diminished somewhat — though very slightly — when users were told that giving advertisers the ability to direct ads at specific users helps in keeping Internet content free. However, 61 percent of respondents said the free content argument does not justify the invasion of privacy that tracking technology represents.

While the survey makes it clear that users prefer to be left alone when surfing the Web, a sizable number — 47 percent — said that if they must be tracked, they would prefer to be able to choose the companies that would be allowed to follow them. That number was even higher among the segments of the population that advertisers covet most: 18-to-54 year olds and those who earn more than US$75,000 a year.

In the 18-to 34-year-old group, 57 percent said they would prefer to choose the companies that track them. Forty eight percent of those in the 35- to 54-year-old group voiced that preference, as did 49 percent of those earning more than $75,000 per year.

Advertisers Fear the Apocalypse

Advertisers have a major stake in any action that might be taken to curb online tracking. The type of advertising that results from the practice — called “behavioral targeting” — currently generates more than $1 billion for the industry each year, and it’s growing at a double-digit pace, according to eMarketer.

When faced with numbers like that, it’s not surprising that a recent editorial in Adweek, a major industry trade publication, said the prospect of a Do Not Track List was sending shudders and fear of “the apocalypse” through the online ad community.

Though the Gallup Poll might offer ammunition to those seeking to curb online tracking for the purpose of targeted advertising, the survey did not — and could not — answer questions about how government regulators would be able to ensure that any do-not-track laws were being followed.

I’ve written about the shortcomings of the proposed antitracking methods before. Most are centered on the concept of placing headers in users’ Web browsers that emit signals telling website operators that this particular user doesn’t wish to be tracked. There is no reliable way of ensuring this technology is being used, however.

Regulating Mobile Tech

Ensuring compliance with antitracking rules will become even more difficult as more users turn to mobile devices as their primary means of connecting to the Web. Just last week, Apple and several content providers — including Pandora, the Weather Channel and Dictionary.com — were hit with a lawsuit by a consumer who alleges it’s impossible to disable a unique identifier on iPhones and iPads that Apple shares with advertising networks that wish to track which sites users are visiting on those devices. The plaintiff is seeking class-action status.

A coalition of advertising industry groups has launched a voluntary antitracking initiative, the Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising.

Government regulators — specifically the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce — argue that the industry is being too soft in policing itself, thus the need to explore options like a federally mandated Do Not Track List.

It’s difficult to say exactly how tough the industry is being on itself, since its self-regulatory program was launched just last month, and its proposals for disciplining companies that violate the guidelines aren’t expected to be released until sometime in 2011.

Opting Out Is Not Easy

After perusing the About Ads site, I do have to question how many users will understand how to comply with what is a fairly convoluted process for opting out of being tracked. I’m also curious as to how users will even find out about that option.

The About Ads site mentions a logo that advertisers participating in the initiative are supposed to place on their sites, leading users to the opt-out page. I’m guessing most users will see that logo as just another ad — and not one targeted at them — and proceed to ignore it as they continue their journey through cyberspace.

Ultimately, this discussion comes back to my longstanding argument regarding regulation of the Internet: Whether you think it’s a good idea or a bad one, it simply isn’t practical. I firmly believe the market will work these issues out, and users’ answers to two questions on the Gallup Poll lend credence to my argument.

When asked whether they notice ads are being targeted to them based on their browsing habits, 60 percent of users said yes. When asked if they respond to those ads, 90 percent said no.

The advertising pros can do the numbers to determine whether the effort it takes to track users’ browsing habits is worthwhile.


TechNewsWorld columnist Sidney Hill has been writing about business and technology trends for more than two decades. In addition to his work as a freelance journalist, he operates an independent marketing communications consulting firm. You can connect with Hill through his website.

2 Comments

  • It seems there is a general consensus against tracking user Internet behavior. My own belief is that this is a knee-jerk reaction secondary to lack of understanding. There is only one reason to target marketing efforts: to provide consumers with advertising that is pertinent. It is not to find out what you are doing, to spy, or to report to some secretive agency what you are up to. The alternative to advertising on the Web is to pay for content, a choice no doubt these self-same complainants would find even less savory. Someone has to pay the bills, and when consumers discover they are the ones to do so, they will be screaming to bring back tracking.

  • Comment: Harris Polls has been tracking what respondents think about being tracked on the Web with a question included in every poll (at least the ones I receive) for years. It would be nice to see how those results have changed over time.

    Second, a question or two. It appears to me that any ‘Do Not Track’ list would be doomed to be useless. Any plan requiring active participation by the ‘trackers’ would just be ignored or subverted by the very folks most of us would object to tracking us.

    What are the prospects of a ‘user controlled’ tracking blocker?

    1) For example, what would be the net result (no pun intended) of requiring every ISP to default to anonymous browsing with an opt-in for tracking? In other words ‘NinjaProxy’ for the common user.

    I recognize that most (all?) current browsers offer anonymous browsing, but understand there are limitations to just how anonymous you really are. Some of the descriptions / explanations make it sound like you only cease storing your history so your wife and kids don’t dig out your porn preferences, but any of the sites you visit can track away to see if you prefer blonds or brunettes.

    It would seem that a multi-level cookie policy would be required as well. Perhaps: a) No cookies accepted, b) cookies that can only collect data from a single site (allowing retailers to maintain shopping bags and other persistent information, but not data on your general browsing habits, or c) accept all cookies

    I would really appreciate some comments on this subject from those of you technically competent web/internet folk.

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