Ugly behaviour

I’ve read a couple of reports that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 10 will be set to “do not track” by default. Historically, the default do not track setting in most browsers has been “off” – meaning that websites that check for the setting were free to set tracking cookies. Websites and marketing partners like to track our browsing activity so that they can deliver targeted advertising. They claim that tracking is done anonymously without violating privacy, but some people argue that it’s easy to make the connection between a person’s IP address or mobile device and the real person.

SBS reports that privacy advocates have been pleased with Microsoft’s decision to allow the user to turn tracking on if he or she wants to. “We believe consumers should have more control over how data about their online behavior is tracked, shared, and used,” Microsoft chief privacy officer Brendon Lynch said in announcing the move.

Some website owners and advertisers, however, are up in arms and have declared that they will ignore the setting and track users’ browsing anyway. The statements they’ve made in response to Microsoft’s initiative are disingenuous, to say the least. According to the SBS article, ‘The Digital Advertising Alliance, a consortium of the largest US media and marketing associations, told its members they can ignore or override the default settings in Microsoft or other browsers. “The trade associations that lead the DAA do not believe that Microsoft’s IE10 browser settings are an appropriate standard for providing consumer choice,” said the alliance, which includes the Better Business Bureau. “Machine-driven do not track does not represent user choice; it represents browser-manufacturer choice.”’

Yahoo! agreed, saying it will not recognise the default do not track setting. A Yahoo! blog post said Microsoft had acted “unilaterally” and that “this degrades the experience for the majority of users and makes it hard to deliver on our value proposition to them.”

Pardon? Where is user choice when the default setting is “track”? How does turning tracking off degrade the user experience? The “value proposition” involved has no benefit to the user. These people didn’t complain when the choice to be tracked was taken away from the user by default. They didn’t argue then that it was “browser-manufacturer choice”. I think they realise they are on slippery ground here. They must fear that if the default setting is “off” then no one will ever turn it on… and they’ll lose their revenue streams.

US House of Representatives members Edward Markey and Joe Barton, who head the House privacy caucus, expressed disappointment over the actions by advertisers and Yahoo!, saying they highlight the need for better privacy laws. “If consumers want to be tracked online, they should have to opt-in, not the other way around,” the two lawmakers said in a statement.

The SBS article goes on to say that some analysts argue that wiping out all online tracking would undermine the economic model of the Internet. Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) analyst Daniel Castro said most consumers do not object to online tracking if they understand that ads support the websites they visit. “You can’t say you don’t want targeted advertising but you do want free access to websites,” Castro said. “People like free content and they are willing to make some tradeoffs.”

Hmmm, how does he know that? I guess they might do market research, but in all the years I’ve been online no website has ever asked me if I want advertising to offset the cost of providing free content. My experience is that sites shove their ads down your throat whether you like it or not. Some are so bad that the advertising almost drowns out the content.

I’ve never been able to understand the advertising-supported model. I made a conscious decision to not have advertising in any form on any of my websites, with one exception – this site’s host offers a discount in return for a text link, “Linux Web Hosting by Arvixe” on each page. My reasoning was that it’s a small piece of text, and it relates directly to this site. (I did feel the need to add “Disclaimer: this link earns me a 10% discount on hosting costs!”) My belief is that if you’re going to offer free content it should really be be free. If you can’t afford to offer it for free you should charge for it. Of course, that would tend to drive visitors away, and no doubt that’s why they go for the advertising.

Others complain that turning off tracking threatens the internet “economic model”. Richard Frankel, president of the ad technology firm Rocket Fuel, said that even though “everyone claims to hate online advertising” there would be very little content on the Internet without it. Frankel said that imposing tracking restrictions would cut revenues and thereby “would stifle investigative reporting, dissuade open discussion and commentary, and muffle free speech.”

Rubbish, Mr Frankel. The Internet survived quite nicely before some people got greedy and decided they could make money out of it. As for stifling investigative reporting and muffling free speech… what a load of codswallop! I’d actually call it self-serving rhetoric.

There are plenty of sites that provide their content free of advertising. Advertisers waste their time trying to pitch to many Internet users, anyway, because a lot of us block advertising in our browsers. I have an excellent program that blocks all ads, so I don’t even see them, let alone click on them.

The hypocrisy of the statements by website owners and advertisers above is stunning. They would have more credibility if they had protested that the choice was taken away from users when the default do not track setting was “off”. If they carry out their threat to ignore do not track, then they deserve our contempt.