Stuart Freen is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
In a blog post on his personal website, Mozilla global privacy and public-policy leader Alexander Fowler revealed that upcoming releases of Firefox will include a “Do Not Track” feature designed to stop online advertisers from tracking users. Google announced the same day that it will release a browser add-on for Chrome to do essentially the same thing. These developments will bring the world’s second and third most popular web browsers into line with recent U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calls for increased online privacy measures. In December, the FTC testified to Congress that advertisers should be required to respect consumers choices in regard to opting-out of behavioural advertising.
Privacy-watchers have become increasingly concerned (link, link, link) about online targeted advertising practices. Online marketers, including Google and Microsoft, track and store individual users’ browsing habits in order to serve them with ads catering to their perceived interests. The results can be creepy and intrusive for users, with the ads occasionally crossing the line from being pointed and relevant into the “get out of my head” zone. However, targeted ads are generally thought to be far more effective than non-targeted ones, suggesting that they are here to stay.
Microsoft announced in December that it will be introducing a Do Not Track feature into Internet Explorer next year. Notably, the anti-tracking technology in all three of the major browsers will rely on advertisers to respect the choices of users on the honour system. Advertisers must “opt in” to the system – paving the way for unscrupulous marketers to simply ignore users’ privacy settings.
The FTC has submitted a 122-page proposal to Congress that would force advertisers to comply with Do Not Track technology, loosely modelled on the popular Do Not Call list. Advertisers and web publishers have criticized the move, arguing that it will strip them of one of the most effective types of advertisements in an industry that is already hurting to find revenue streams.
It should be interesting to watch how this movement plays out over the next little while. Marketers argue that targeted ads are actually good for consumers since they cut down on irrelevant ads; i.e. consumers actually like being targeted. Furthermore, advertising currently provides a key revenue stream for many web publishers and if online ads cease to be effective, then those publishers will have to generate income in other ways (such as charging users directly). On the other hand, knowing that your web-browsing habits are being harvested in order to sell you things is definitely unsettling.