Tracking The Trackers

Footprints in sand. Marinha Grande, Portugal.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another day, another web site (well, portal in this case) comes out in favor of ignoring the express wishes of its user base.

AOL‘s new privacy policy states that it will not honor the do-not-track requests that users send through their browsers. I’ve written about this before and as someone who is very customer-focused, I can’t understand this decision.

Here is how one of the companies (the Network Advertising Initiative) administering a Do Not Track program explains it:

NAI members are committed to transparency and choice. The NAI opt-out tool was developed in conjunction with our members for the express purpose of allowing consumers to “opt out” of the Interest-Based Advertising delivered by our members…Following an opt out, (members)… cease collecting and using data from across web domains owned or operated by different entities for the purpose of delivering advertising based on preferences or interests known or inferred from the data collected (Interest Based Advertising or IBA).

Pretty clear.  The  browser you’re using right now probably offers do-not-track headers, which tell publishers and ad networks that you don’t want to be tracked. But the header doesn’t actually prevent tracking. Instead, ad networks and publishers are free to ignore the signals. Of course, when you combine users opting in to the do not track program with them setting their browser to tell sites that they do not wished to be tracked, you’d have to be pretty dumb not to get the message.  Yet of all the hundreds of sites out there, only 21 have committed to implement this program and only 2 (Twitter and Pinterest) are what I would consider major sites.

In AOL’s case, as is the case with Yahoo and damn near every other publisher, they get the message.  They’re just ignoring it.  They use excuses like “no one else is honoring them” or “the standards aren’t set yet for what can and can’t be tracked.” I read that as “our business interests supersede your desire not to receive targeted ads.”  This is short-sighted and will, I believe, result in more users doing as I do:  blocking analytics, ads, and everything else publishers use to make the content they offer better for the user.

As someone who works with clients to make money off of their digital efforts I know how vital data is.  I grew up in the ad business so I support free content paid for by your attention to ads.  But the value exchange needs to be transparent.  I think there is a huge potential for backlash as what and how users are being tracked, as well as what’s done with their data, reaches the mainstream.  What do you think?

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