Saturday, April 14, 2012

W3C holds meetings on "do not track"; deep divisions remain over issue

Rainey Reitman has an important new discussion of “Do Not Track”, April 5, on Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website, link here.  There was a meeting for the W3C World Wide Web Consortium Tracking Protection Group in Washington DC this week, April 10-13 (website url link).  Reitman compares the W3C effort with the apparent closed doors behind the Digital Advertising Alliance (website url link).  Retiman is also critical of the mis-focus of Yahoo!’s own “do not track” initiative, which seems focused on gathering user interests rather than on stopping “rampant” data collection (Marketwatch story here).

Another player is the Interactive Advertising Bureau. I found a paper, back from June 2008, urging “small publishers unite!” (website url link) claiming that regulatory political interests (those advocating strong “do not track” policies) could destroy the small publishing and self-broadcast business model that large ISP’s and service providers have built “for us”.

My own take on this is mixed.  I have self-published on the web since 1996, when I got started first by tracking the “gays in the military” issue, expanding concentrically.  I used the web to support the material in my books, and most visitors and customers got to know me through this “passive shelter” strategy, finding me on search engines.  I didn’t use ads at all until maybe 1999 when I start using Link-Share.  I started out with a small web hosting provider, whom I had met at work, and used until he went out of business at the end of 2001, when I switched to a large, corporate provider (Verio).  I actually had very stable, dependable service with him.  In 2006, I added blogging. 

Even though many bloggers or webmasters earn little or nothing from web advertising, or at least don’t have to depend on it, the industry as a whole does, and could not exist without visitors willing to engage commerce in some way.  The same concept has applied to broadcast TV since the 1950s, and probably even radio before; but with broadcast there was no way to “target” individual consumers; there were only aggregate measures like Nielsen ratings (Nielsen, by the way, offers similar survey services of web browsing).   Our whole society depends somewhat on receptivity to advertisers as part of its “social capital”, and that is getting weaker as privacy concerns grow.  (Just yesterday, I had to put my home landline number on “do not call” because of a continual, time consuming parade of solicitation calls; there are just too many of them.)

Is tracking really necessary for effective online marketing?  I can say that in my own experience (and I have not enabled any “do not track” capabilities on any browser), most of the ads I see on most sites seem correlated to where I am geographically (particularly recently when I was in Dallas) and to my general search and surfing habits.  It seems that everybody is doing it (that is, OBA or “online behavioral advertising”).  I’ve particularly noticed this on my new smartphone. Generally, on my own “home business” computer,  security software has been allowing it, and Webroot seems to have backed off from quarantining tracking cookies.  But because I’m the only user of my computers, it doesn’t cause any problems.  In a family or workplace, with many different users on one computer there could be real issues. 

Interestingly, a Pew Research Center report from Feb. 2012 found the public skeptical about the need to regulate tracking (link here  look for “Internet privacy”).  More highly educated (and probably single) consumers tended to understand that advertising is important for the services they get, particularly from Facebook and other social networking and publishing services. 

Other studies, in the past, have claimed that untargeted ads can be almost as effective as those developed by OBA.  Again, in the “good old” Web 1.0 days, I personally found that in general “passive” strategies for selling oneself and selling one’s own books were pretty effective, but the world really started to change in this regard around 2005 or so; “extreme capitalism” has increase, and so have the pressures from it.

The other big threat on the “small publishing” horizon, though, is the whole downstream liability issue.  It’s true that we’ve deflected SOPA and PIPA for a while (although there are already replacements or these in the works). But there is increasing “grass roots” pressure for gut Section 230 protections in the libel area, partly because of the cyberbullying problems (I’m about to see a movie on this problem today), but also because of major abuses by some operators, such as the recent flap about the “STD Carriers” site (here, March 12, as discussed on the Anderson show). 

The biggest long-range question is to whether “free services” will always be profitable enough to keep operating the way they do today.  The business environment today seems to depend on large service providers with an intricate use of online marketing technology, in start contrast to the earlier "dot-com" boom and then bubble days.  Given calls for regulation, to protect privacy and sometimes protect online reputations, they might not.  The world could become a “safer” but less innovative place. 

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