Michael Zaneis is senior vice president and general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau
Check the weather, peruse the latest sports scores, find out if that sweater you fell in love with has finally gone on sale. Chances are you've done at least one of these things today online and none of it would be possible without digital advertising. The Internet has quickly transformed our daily activities, giving us access to anything and everything with a click. And just as quickly, it could go away.
The recent and ill-informed calls for a national "Do Not Track" list, a theoretical mechanism to stop online data collection, might resonate with the public because of the apparent resemblance to the National Do Not Call Registry, but the two are similar in name only. You cannot simply turn off the data exchanges between parties that allow you to, for example, navigate from one website to another. Stop that sharing and you put a stop to the Internet as we know it. [See a slide show of the Best Apps for iPhone, iPad.]
Assuming this is not the result that privacy advocates desire, perhaps their target (no pun intended) is the variety of freely available content and services that consumers currently enjoy. The Federal Trade Commission and others have lauded an upcoming feature in the newest version of Internet Explorer as a simple implementation of Do Not Track. But upon further inspection, this looks less like a viable Do Not Track mechanism and more like a censorship tool. Imagine you visit abcnews.com to get your morning news, but the lead AP story is missing, the local ABC affiliate's coverage is nothing more than a blank box, and your sports scores provided via ESPN are unavailable. This is the consumer experience some would prefer you have online, putting their own parochial interests ahead of actually educating consumers and empowering them to make informed decisions. Customizing content and advertising to an individual computer does not result in identity theft, there is no Big Brother watching on the other end of these anonymous interactions, and to equate it to cyberstalking is both patently false and dangerous.
Here's what you need to know: Advertisers and publishers are not in the business of gathering and selling information on individuals. What they are doing is what advertisers have done for more than a hundred years—creating groups of users and making educated guesses, now based on browser actions, on what might potentially be the interests of those groups. Men who like sports, for example, may be a perfect target for a sports drink, but not for lipstick. How that relevant advertising is delivered is precisely how the rest of the relevant content on the Internet is delivered.
So if the creation of a Do Not Track list is not so simple, perhaps the advocates' true motivation is to attack the economic engine that fuels the Internet—advertising. The stakes are high for those that would do away with relevant online advertising. Our industry is responsible for $300 billion of economic activity in the United States and directly employs more than 1.2 million Americans. But make no mistake about it, the interactive ad industry strongly supports consumer privacy. We've had a self-regulatory program, www.aboutads.info, in place for more than a decade, and we are currently updating that program to ensure it keeps pace with new technologies and evolving consumer expectations. [See our slide show in Opinion: 5 Ways New Media Are Changing Politics.]
The industry is delivering on the promises that the Do Not Track rhetoric cannot. Think about the diminished consumer experience that heavy-handed regulation could cause and contrast it to the positive experience you get when you add yourself to the Do Not Call list. Think about that the next time you check the sports scores on your smartphone.
Read why 'Do Not Track' rules would preserve privacy by Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz.