A couple of weeks ago, I came to a realisation: I was becoming more and more reluctant to click on advertising banners because I feared I would be digitally tailed for the next few months. When I mentioned this to friends, I noted that I was not alone. Everyone had their example of ads that, once clicked, become as sticky as the proverbial band aid. This could be the result of exploring a product (read my own experience testing an app), or occasional research on a subject.
Your online behavior – queries you send, ads you click on – draws your marketing profile, enabling brands to deluge you with “targeted” ads. A shoe freak will be swamped by shoemakers ads, someone who intends to buy a car will be targeted by automakers and dealers. (I always wonder how the web page of someone afflicted with an embarrassing disease looked like…)
Once you’re caught in the behavioral targeting net, you’ll have a hard time cleaning up your surfing. I recently tested a utility for my computer – a poor quality product I quickly dumped – and ended up having to spend time removing the offending cookies with metaphorical tweezers. Now, I sacrifice a “polluted” browser (and a specific email account) which I use to click on ads, download products or marketing information, and do my best to keep my other browsers clean.
Why not flush the hundreds of cookies piled up inside my browsers, you might ask? Good question. In a file on my two computers, I keep almost 200 encrypted passwords, ranging from subscriptions to various publications, accounts to e-commerce sites or business online services. I don’t want to re-enter these codes each time I get rid of unwanted cookies. Hence the “dirty” browser.
The conclusion is obvious: behavioral advertising is backfiring. The more experienced users become, the more cautious they get in order to avoid aggressive tracking. For advertisers, this is the exact opposite of what they meant to achieve. And I think the trend will accelerate. Marketers have more sense of efficiency than of measure; they were quick to embrace these clever technologies without considering they might end up killing the golden goose. It is happening much earlier than anyone has anticipated.
The debate around the Do Not Track (DNT) system epitomises this trend. The idea originated at the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC): it devised a piece of software embedded in a browser or an application, able to send a signal instructing a web site not to inject a tracking cookie in the user’s computer. After that, it is up to the website to comply or not. Mozilla quickly included the feature in its version 9.0 of Firefox, and Twitter followed.
Early in June, Microsoft added fuel to the fire by announcing the DNT feature will be turned “on” as a default on its new Internet Explorer 10 browser set to work with Windows 8. This is by no means unimportant: the vast majority of users do not change default settings in their software. As a result, a sizable percentage of web surfers could end up automatically asking web sites to forgo any tracking. A potential catastrophe for the advertising industry: while most ads are purchases in bulk, at heavy discounts, the industry relies on behavioral targeting to increase the efficiency of ads – and of their resulting margins.
Intense lobbying on behalf the ad community ensued.
First, the definition issue, as viewed by the FTC:
An effective Do Not Track system should go beyond simply opting consumers out of receiving targeted advertisements; it should opt them out of collection of behavioral data for all purposes other than those that would be consistent with the context of the interaction.
Naturally, marketers are in favor of a much narrower definition, excluding the data collection process. In other words, OK for not targeting users, but their personal data must be ours.
In this story, Atlantic’s senior editor Alexis Madrigal makes the following point:
No one understands the industry’s definition because it deviates so far from the standard english definition of the word ‘track’. Stanford’s Aleecia McDonald found that 61% of people expect that clicking a Do Not Track button should shut off *all* data collection. Only 7% of people expected that websites could collect the same data before and after clicking a ‘Do Not Track’ button. That is to say, 93% of people do not understand the industry’s definition of DNT.
Eventually, Microsoft had to backtrack under pressure from the Digital Advertising Alliance. The DAA is a one-year old body that defines itself as the “self-regulatory program for online behavioral advertising”; it lines up all the major players in the business, including Google, Apple and Microsoft. The DAA fired a first shot by saying that the “on” default setting envisioned by Microsoft was going way beyond FTC’s definition as well as the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium)’s DNT recommendation.
The DAA suggested DNT activation ought to be left to users – for instance, when they launch their browser for the first time. As a consequence, Microsoft’s IE10 featuring a DNT set to “on” as a ”factory default” would be seen as “non-compliant” and the no-tracking signal sent to web sites could be legally ignored.
The battle is just starting. It is unclear if Microsoft will fight the non-compliance issue and what kind of compromise will be reached. (The DAA’s final position will be disclosed in a few months.) In the meantime, digital kremlinologists will keep dissecting Microsoft true motives. After all, according to eMarketer, this year, in the US alone, the Redmond giant will make $ 700m (£450m) in advertising revenue:
This chart also clearly shows what’s at stake here. With DNT-as-a-default, Microsoft is obviously aiming at Google and Facebook – and their higher advertising income. Both rely heavily on data collection to serve relevant ads. It is even a crucial part of Facebook’s business model (see this previous Monday Note: Facebook’s Bet on Privacy) based on people giving up personal data in exchange for its service. A bet increasingly at risk.