Do Not Follow

December 2nd, 2010

Boy, this would definitely not have happened with the FTC under Bush. The commission is recommending that online users have a right to expect online privacy, and propose that Congress pass a “Do Not Follow” system in which, by pressing a button in a browser, a user could opt to not have his or her online activity monitored.

Before you get all excited, it is not (necessarily) about the RIAA tracking your IP address as you download the latest Black Eyed Peas album from The Pirate Bay. Instead, it’s about advertisers collecting, analyzing, combining, using, and sharing your “purchasing behavior, online browsing habits and other online and offline activity.”

What caught my eye in this report was a statement in protest of this proposal, by Mike Zaneis of the Interactive Advertising Bureau:

Most people would rather get a relevant ad rather than an irrelevant ad, which is by definition, spam.

This explains a lot. First, the guy thinks that a message is spam only if it’s not relevant. That’s an interesting definition–and dead wrong. Spam is unsolicited advertising, not non-relevant advertising. Now, spam is less annoying if it’s about things you want to buy, but it’s still spam. But Zaneis didn’t even use the term “wanted,” he said “relevant,” which is a significant distinction.

Second, the statement completely sidesteps the more important issue–privacy–as if a user’s expectations of privacy were completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand, when in fact they are absolute in this case. This is not about annoying people, this is about protecting people from invasion and predation.

Of course, when advertising is your business and predation is your primary tool, you would naturally want to redefine unfavorable terms describing exactly what you do as being something else.

Naturally, the industry would prefer to keep on doing what they’re doing: invade your privacy, usually in an aggressive manner you are not even aware of, and bury you in ads. Allowing people to navigate the Internet without such predation is not what they want:

The online advertising industry, Mr. Zaneis said, would suffer “significant economic harm” if the government controlled the do-not-track mechanism and there was “a high participation rate similar to that of do not call.”

And if the government were to make it illegal to point a weapon at people and make an aggressive plea for monetary transfer, the mugging industry would also suffer “significant economic harm.”

Here’s an idea: Give people the option of telling you which ads they want to see. It does not have to be tracked by name, location, or IP address–instead, have a dialog box in the browser where a person can select categories of ads they would prefer to see, with the option of adding keywords. That data would then be used to target the ad types, while keeping user data anonymous. This allows advertisers to deliver targeted ads, makes the browsing experience much more pleasant, and protects privacy, all at the same time.

Add the ability to state a preference for static (non-moving) ads, and I myself would probably uninstall my ad-blocking software.

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