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Voice: To Track, or Not to Track

By launching its latest browser with tracking off, Microsoft believes it will enhance Web advertising's value

Illustration: Oliver Munday

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It has become undeniably clear that the digital marketing industry is at an inflection point between the old world and the new.

In the past, online users were anonymous, insights were sporadic and siloed, and people were largely unaware about the collection and use of their data. In a speech I delivered last year at the annual IAB Leadership Conference, I likened this to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment in which people have no say over, and receive no value for, the data they generate on the Internet.

But a new world—the age of “digital enlightenment,” if you will—is fast approaching and is informed by two dynamics: The amount of online data being collected online is exploding; and the unprecedented capability of creating relevant, user-centric advertising experiences. Despite these developments, there is a lack of understanding among consumers and other groups as to how this data is being retained and used.

Recently, Microsoft cast a spotlight on this “old versus new” paradigm with its decision to turn on “Do Not Track” (DNT) in the new Internet Explorer 10 browser that is shipping later this fall with Windows 8. This means websites will be automatically alerted that users don’t want to be tracked when they visit unless the customer chooses to adjust the DNT setting.

Regardless of the fact that people can easily turn off the DNT setting, and that our industry is still evolving its definition and implementation plans for the DNT signal, Microsoft’s decision to turn on DNT in IE 10 created angst among advertisers and industry associations when it was announced. Numerous media outlets debated whether Microsoft was “for” or “against” advertising, and even whether DNT means the end of online advertising as we know it. For the record, we are not retrenching on our commitment to build a leading digital advertising business at Microsoft.

Still, the fact remains that consumer concerns around privacy and data are not diminishing. It is our contention that consumers want more visibility into how their data is used and they’re starting to see value in that data—just like marketers have seen for a long time. This is certainly not an “either-or” situation where either consumers have ultimate control over data or marketers do—both can and should have skin in the game. But safeguarding privacy is only one piece of a much larger conversation that needs to take place.

Instead of debating whether DNT is “on” or “off,” we should redouble our efforts as an industry and educate consumers about how advertising pays for the free Web experience we all now enjoy; how much richer people’s Web experiences can be if they share their data with trusted partners; and how they can increasingly manage the data they generate. If nothing else, DNT should serve as an accelerant to something that everyone in the business of digital advertising wants to see: greater consumer understanding of and desire to participate in the value exchange.

Speaking specifically as a member of the digital marketing industry, I strongly believe that by building trust and demonstrating real value—serving ads when they are accretive to the consumer experience and not serving them when they aren’t—consumers will be willing to share more information with marketers and online services.

Consider that digital tools are becoming more consumer-friendly and that people can have an increasingly clear line of sight into the data they generate, better control over how it’s used and share that data with trusted partners. At Microsoft, we want to continue to enable consumer choice and control, and help brands deliver relevant, engaging, beautiful advertising experiences. This requires a strong bond and trust between the consumer and the brand.

As we enter this age of digital enlightenment, we need a new norm. No longer should the consumers who generate the data for our industry be left out of the equation. On the contrary, they should have the option to participate in that part of the business to a greater extent than they ever have before.

Rik van der Kooi is corporate vp of the Microsoft Advertising Business Group.