“Do Not Track” Stupidity

A do-not-track list has been proposed by some privacy and consumer advocacy groups, to allow web surfers to opt out of behavior-tracking online as it relates to advertising. This list, unsurprisingly, is modeled after the popular “Do-Not-Call” list that takes your number off telemarketing directories, but there are some important distinctions that make this a really stupid idea.

First, it’s important to clarify what happens in behavioral advertising and why privacy groups are concerned.

Watch this video:

Now, the video is made by Google, so it’s got some spin on it, but the basics are spot on. Behavioral advertising keeps track of your search queries and clicks to serve up more relevant ads. Using your IP address to get a rough idea of your location (only your Internet Service Provider knows precisely who you are), and any other information you explicitly choose to provide (like if you opt in to Google’s Personalized Search and tell them your address and browsing history, for example), the company serving ads is able to bring you more targeted and relevant ads. The benefits to this are obvious: if you search for the word “bass,” for example, keeping logs of previous queries you’ve made will help Google decide whether you’re looking for something related to fish or something related to music.

And so the privacy concerns come in mostly in regard to a company like Google being able to “remember you” as you surf the web and encounter AdSense ads on sites in its content network, but also (inexplicably) for individuals who explicitly agree to share their personal information.

I’ll be the first to say that I have always been confused by the focus on things like this for the simple fact that, unless you give Google explicit permission to know who you are, all it can possibly know (or assume, rather), is that you are the same person who initiated the browsing session and that you live somewhere in New York City. Also, I’m baffled by the concept of a machine being able to invade your privacy by feeding random bits of data through some algorithm and automatically returning some response. Last I checked, a machine is not a person and can’t know anything about me unless I give it information. This is a deep philosophical question that I don’t believe we’re fully ready to grasp at this point in time, but is important to keep in mind as artificial intelligence inches closer to becoming a reality.

Anyway, I digress. Skepticism about privacy concerns aside, what about the proposed Do-Not-Track list is idiotic?

Well, unlike the Do-Not-Call list, being on this new list doesn’t mean you’ll be able to avoid ads. Actually, a quite negative side-effect of being on such a list is that you’ll encounter far more completely irrelevant ads while you browse from site to site. You can’t avoid them altogether (unless you’re willing to pay cash to view websites, and unless you’re crazy you aren’t going to want to do that), so it strikes me as counterproductive to opt in to being more annoyed by ads than you are likely to be if they have something to do with what you’re looking for or interested in. Seems dumb.

Additionally, it’s hard not to appreciate this irony: in order to be on this list, you have to tell these companies who you are. You are basically consenting to be tracked to the end of not being tracked. Yes, there’s a difference, I guess. But it works exactly the same way. As a matter of fact, it seems like being on the list works more like signing up for Personalized Search than the default cookie-storing and session-based behavior of search engines and ad networks. Of course, the people overseeing the list would never ever use it for evil. Right? Right?

In the end, comparing the Do Not Track list to the Do Not Call list is unfair and misleading. Unlike the DNC list, you’re not getting rid of anything by signing up for this one. The only way you benefit is if you have an irrational fear of companies like Google and a lack of understanding about how they operate and what information they collect. You’ll feel some peace of mind, I guess, but little else will change.

As I’ve said before, if you’re truly concerned about privacy, you should be looking at your Internet Service Provider, who knows far more about you and your online history than companies like Google ever could. These companies have your real name, address, phone number, credit card information, browsing and search and email history, p2p and BitTorrent activity, often also all incoming and outgoing phone calls, and your television-watching habits. Unlike Google, this information is stored in a far less transparent way. Google at least lets you see precisely what information it has about you and tries its hardest to resist handing over this information to the courts. Comcast and Optimum and Verizon and these folks keep everything to themselves, except when they feel like selling it to marketers and freely sharing it with the government.

In any event, watch this space. The FCC FTC is having a town hall meeting today about these very issues. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of it.

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