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Do Not Track: The great ad-tracking debate

We look at both sides of the story

To track or not to track: Two editors go toe-to-toe in the debate over web advertisers' right to track online browsing behaviour.

Mythbusting the "Who cares about tracking" argument
The other side of the argument, as Patrick describes, says that prohibiting advertisers from tracking us online would cause the amount of free content (news, games, services, Web apps) to dry up.

Do-not-track doesn't threaten the free internet - not by a longshot. Patrick is flat out wrong claiming it will and so are others that argued Facebook will have to charge $20 a month if advertisers can't display these type ads. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau "in 2009, overall revenue from all types of internet advertising was $22.661bn, while spending on behaviourally targeted ads was $925m." That's less than five percent.

But in a world where web surfers can choose to opt out from being tracked online, contextual advertising and non-tracking forms of interest-targeted advertising are unaffected. Advertisers can still show Patrick those awesome relevant ads he likes; they just can't use his browsing history on other sites. Non-behaviour based forms of online advertising, such as contextual, demographic, search, and social network advertising, would not be impacted by do-not-track measures and can still serve up relevant ads.

Patrick also argues he doesn't care about advertising tracking him because it's "not the kind of privacy (he is) worried about". This smacks of a very narrow 'I don't care because it doesn't affect me' attitude. I do care about advertisers tracking me, but more importantly about those seeking loans, life insurance, and health information. I worry about the woman who spent the last six months scouring the web for information on breast cancer that could have her IP address flagged by a health insurance provider's website when she requests information for a new policy.

Other web-focused trade groups argue that do-not-track restrictions are too hard for the advertising industry to implement. That is not true. Microsoft and Mozilla both have proved that implementing do-not-track flags (as an HTTP header) is possible.

Still other parties, such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau, say that doing away with behavioural ads based on tracking data will lead to more-obtrusive ads. In my experience nothing has ever stopped advertisers from squeezing more-obtrusive ads into my browser. If advertisers can do it, they will - do-not-track laws or not.

The just-because-advertisers-can-they-should mentality is a bad one. Unfortunately, most web surfers don't have the time or energy to understand the byzantine and technically cunning way they are being taken advantage of. It's time to shed a little light on the problem, take a stand, and enforce some limits on the 'internet-advertising industrial complex'.

  1. We look at both sides of the story
  2. More on why not tracking is not a big deal
  3. Tom Spring tell us why tracking is bad
  4. I'm not paranoid - the threat is real
  5. Mythbusting
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