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Ad tracking: Is anything being done?

Robert L. Mitchell | April 3, 2014
With online tracking on the rise and Do Not Track efforts moving ahead slowly, users and browser vendors have been taking matters into their own hands.

In contrast, a universally accepted Do Not Track mechanism would still allow third-party advertising networks to substitute a contextually appropriate ad for a behaviorally targeted one (e.g., a game ad for users on a gaming site) rather than cutting off the request entirely. "We'd prefer a more subtle solution where we don't have to throw out the entire request," Kennish says.

"It's a very blunt tool. That's why we're trying to find a middle ground with Do Not Track," says the Center for Democracy and Technology's Brookman.

The DNT controversy
W3C formed the Tracking Protection Working Group in 2011. Its mission is "to improve user privacy and user control by defining mechanisms for expressing user preferences around Web tracking and for blocking or allowing Web tracking elements."

But debate among the members of the organization -- which include privacy advocates, Web publishers, advertising networks and many others -- has been contentious, culminating last year with some well-publicized resignations on both the consumer and advertiser sides of the debate.

The industry has created a default where you're followed wherever you go by hundreds of companies. Sarah Downey, privacy advisor, Abine

More recently, the group has been making slow progress on its Tracking Preference Expression standard, which determines the syntax and meaning of the DNT signal. This specification should be ready to be released this spring, according to Brookman. But that may turn out to be the easy part. The group still needs to agree on the Tracking Compliance and Scope specification, which deals with what actions ad networks must take to comply with the DNT request -- and that is still controversial, he says.

For the third-party advertising networks in particular, the DNT discussions represent a potential crisis. Eliminating all tracking is unfair, says Mike Zaneis, senior vice president of public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a trade organization for website publishers and online ad sellers; Zaneis is also the IAB representative to the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group.

Advertisers increasingly pay based not on whether users view an ad but whether they respond to it. "You need a way to track user interactions, both on the publisher page and throughout the purchase process. This represents basic accounting and measurement practices for digital advertising," he says.

Not unexpectedly, privacy advocates disagree. "We don't want to break the Web," Abine's Downey says, but adds that users should have a choice as to whether to share -- and with whom. "The industry has created a default where you're followed wherever you go by hundreds of companies."

And the information gathered isn't used to just deliver behaviorally targeted ads, she says, but can be used in other ways, resulting in lower credit scores, price discrimination on e-commerce sites based on your tracking profile or higher insurance premiums. (Downey keeps a running list of examples of such abuses.) "You don't have a say in any of this," she says. Users, she explains, should have a choice when it comes to tracking.


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