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5 reasons why the web tracking debate matters

Keith Butters on the recent debate around third party cookies and web tracking by advertisers

Mozilla's announcement that the next version of Firefox will block third party cookies by default has sparked debate across the internet around online tracking.

The spectrum of opinion on tracking ranges from the IAB's stance (tracking promotes freedom of choice and supports small business), to calling out the internet as a "surveillance state".

Personalisation can be a great thing. Seeing relevant ads can be a great thing, too (better than irrelevant ads, right?). But, try this little experiment: install Collusion for Chrome, browse around the usual sites you visit in a day, and take a look at all the ad networks, social networks, news sites who are following you around the internet. It's a bit out of hand. Which leads me to my next point, why the debate on third party cookies and tracking matters.

1. It’s gone beyond 'privacy advocates vs those who track'

I’ve been known to don my tin foil hat and disable everything in my browser from time to time, or opt out entirely and use Lynx. I always thought of myself as a special case. However, this is no longer the reality. Friends are regularly asking me how to disconnect from all this stuff, often 'creeped out' by the results of ad targeting. Articles that were once fringe blog posts by privacy advocates are now running on mainstream media outlets like CNN. And with all the great press that the promised zillion-dollar Big Data industry gets, more people are starting to wonder why their own data is being captured for profit without explicit permission. Knowledge is power, and with any luck, all this awareness will lead to innovation.

2. It could have dramatic effects on the digital advertising industry

While third party behavioural ad targeting amounts to only about 5 per cent of the digital ad market, that’s only going to increase. The industry relies on data and metrics, and things like third party cookies to provide that intel. Much of the system is based on using these kinds of cookies even though they weren't really ever supposed to be allowed.

The current form of measuring and tracking digital ad performance is also becoming a disputed topic:

“If it was harder to measure, investment in digital would be bigger,” said Merkle CEO David Williams, comparing it to the softer metrics used to trade media such as TV.

“I think at this point it’s clear that in some ways measurement has stifled the growth of digital.”
- Jack Marshall, writing at Digiday

So maybe we don't need Big Brother tracking platforms to advance the ad industry. Maybe advertising based on search, context, demographic and straight up placement is enough.

3. We could see a reinvigoration of ‘Do Not Track’

The ‘Do Not Track’ initiative is a lot like the old ‘Do Not Call’ list. A great concept, but at present the system is fairly impotent, with some even declaring it dead. The technology makes sense (your browser sends an HTTP header saying that you have opted out of tracking). But ‘Do Not Track’ is essentially unenforceable. So all it really does is say (except for the good people who implement it), "Oh hey, please don't track me, but if you're going to anyway, that's ok." It would be great to see the initiative end up with more teeth in the future.

4. With more debate comes more tools for people to take control

The same people who exposed all of these tracking sites to me through Collusion for Chrome also helped me selectively disconnect using disconnect.me. I also have hopes that whichever way the debate on tracking ends, the browser makers will be more explicit about what settings actually are, and perhaps make them more prominent. If the debate is about choice, maybe opt-in vs opt-out is the wrong model entirely. It would be a tough UX problem to solve, but what if you actually had to set your settings, and the results of those choices were clear to you?

(One side point I need to make here is that I am not a big fan of ad-blockers. So much of the modern web is supported directly by advertising, it just feels wrong, even if you hate display ads. I do wish more people offered the option of paying subscription fees for ad-free experiences though.)

5. Debate should spawn innovation

The door is open for us to design a new system for delivering personalised content and advertising that could support the interests of the ad industry, social networks, publishers, as well as privacy and security advocates and users. Is there a better system? Is there a way to forget about opt-in vs opt-out and design something more simple and easy to understand for non-technical people? As much as I dislike the jargon of the tech crowd these days, it seems like this is another opportunity for some great young minds to disrupt.

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