Top 5 Reasons “Do Not Track” May Not Work for the Web

When the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week endorsed a "Do Not Track" tool for the Web, the agency compared it to the popular, and successful, "Do Not Call" list that blocks telemarketers from contacting consumers. The agency's vision of a similar tool that would allow consumers to prevent advertisers from collecting their data and tracking their online habits is a lofty goal, but will it work? We take a look at the top reasons why what works for telemarketing may not work for online advertising.

When the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week endorsed a “Do Not Track” tool for the Web, the agency compared it to the popular, and successful, “Do Not Call” list that blocks telemarketers from contacting consumers. The agency’s vision of a similar tool that would allow consumers to prevent advertisers from collecting their data and tracking their online habits is a lofty goal, but will it work? We take a look at the top reasons why what works for telemarketing may not work for online advertising.

1) Technical Complications – Proponents of “Do Not Track” envision it as a feature built into users’ Web browsers. Just like the “Do Not Call” registry, where users must add their telephone number to a list to block advertisers, online users would have to activate the Web feature to block marketers from monitoring their online habits. But, as of now, no unique identifier like a telephone number exists for computers. Internet protocol addresses change frequently, and users typically use multiple devices, like smart phones, and Internet service providers to access the Internet.

2) Congressional Force – The same week the FTC made its endorsement of “Do Not Track” official, Congress was on the hunt too, holding a House subcommittee hearing on the topic. The Democrats who lead the subcommittee now are in full support, but more skeptical are the Republicans who will take over as the majority when the new Congress convenes in January. Of concern is what impact legislation enforcing the measure would have on the economy, what impact the tool would have on creating a whole new breed of privacy problems and whether the government is even the best entity to devise and enforce a “Do Not Track” system. The FTC officials behind the proposal have indicated they believe legislation will be necessary to put any force behind the measure, so look for Capitol Hill to be a focus as the debate moves forward.

3) Industry Force – Online advertising, an industry that saw $12.1 billion in revenue for the first half of 2010 alone, does not appear ready to fade into the distance under the FTC’s proposals. The industry is already pushing back, telling Congress, the media, and anyone who will listen, they would prefer to build upon the current self-regulatory system, which uses icons next to ads that, when clicked on, direct users to an opt-out option. And a group of online tracking companies themselves debuted a new service, the Open Data Partnership, just days after the FTC’s proposal, that lets consumers see what information the companies know about them, and how to opt out.

4) Consumer Force – What consumers say they want is not always what they really want, especially when it comes to online privacy. Both security and marketing experts predict that consumers who choose the “Do Not Track” feature will find themselves with a duller, more expensive Internet experience. Web sites will have limited content and consumers used to behavioral targeting may find themselves deluged with ads for products they’re not interested in.

5) Regulatory Difficulties – Marketers are a crafty bunch, constantly finding news ways to gather data on customers, making them a hard target to regulate. Even a complex agency like the FTC would likely face difficulties trying to keep up in order to regulate the industry’s ever-changing tactics. And, at some point, the FTC will have to decide whether that’s the agency’s best use of its limited resources.