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Firms embrace Do Not Track for targeted ads only

Privacy advocates say consumers are expecting more from a Do Not Track policy than marketers are willing to give.

What Do Not Track means to you and what it means to companies that are collecting your data crumbs across the Internet are likely two very different things.

Thus excitement about today's announcement that Google and online advertisers under the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) banner will support Do Not Track technology may be tempered as people realize exactly how limited the scope of the effort is. It applies to targeted ads only and not to any other forms of tracking, such as the use of Google "+1" and Facebook "Like" buttons, which have generated public backlash.

"It's actually 'Do Not Target,'" said Sarah Downey, privacy analyst and attorney at online privacy company Abine, which makes the Do Not Track Plus browser add-on. "Consumer data will still be collected and sold for a variety of purposes...This is just the tip of the iceberg, the question of whether you are seeing a personalized ad or not."

For the cynics, the Do Not Track announcement that came in conjunction with the White House unveiling of a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights is seen as an attempt by online marketers to preempt a Do Not Track standards creation effort that has been going on in a committee of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for nearly a year. With data privacy protectionists in Europe putting the pressure on U.S. Internet companies and all the U.S. headlines about consumer privacy erosions, either willful or unintentional, it was only a matter of time before U.S. regulators would say enough is enough.

"I do think the motivation of getting agreement today among industry members is to stake out a very favorable position that works with their business model," said Bill Kerrigan, CEO of Abine.

Google, which is the last of the major browser makers to sign on for Do Not Track, has been feeling the heat lately on consumer privacy issues. Lawmakers and consumer advocates filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission over Google's plan to consolidate its privacy policies and combine data on users from across its products. On Wednesday, 36 state Attorneys General asked to meet with Google CEO Larry Page to discuss giving consumers the ability to opt out of having their information shared between different Google services. Meanwhile, Google was recently criticized for bypassing default privacy settings on Safari and Internet Explorer.

"There is some pressure going on. I don't know whether it's just the White House, or a combination of the White House and the EU," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Maybe publishers or advertisers are actually feeling that after a lot of news articles about creepy tracking and outcry over Google privacy policies, people are beginning to think we need to do something."

A Google spokeswoman suggested that the Web giant had been waiting for the industry to decide on the definition of "tracking" before jumping in.

"We have always thought the idea of DNT [Do Not Track] was interesting, but there didn't seem to be a wide consensus on what 'tracking' really means," said Lily Lin, who works in global communications and public affairs at Google. "We didn't feel it was responsible to allow users to send a [Do Not Track] header in Chrome that largely had no effect and no agreed-upon meaning. Going forward, the scope is now clear, and we know that the header will be respected by the industry."

So advertisers and others interested in following users on the Internet want a limited definition of tracking while privacy advocates believe the scope should be wider. What do consumers want, or expect?

"If you ask the typical Internet user what it means, they have visions of being followed around on the Internet," said Lorrie Cranor, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor and director of the CyLab usable privacy and security Lab. "If you ask industry players, they're thinking very narrowly about targeted advertising."

"I do have the concern that what we'll have is a button that allows people to prevent targeted advertising but doesn't actually allow them to opt out of being tracked" in any other way, she said.

Abine conducted a quick online survey of 500 Internet users starting on Wednesday and found that 80 percent of respondents believed that Do Not Track stops data collection or removed tracking technologies from their computers. "They hear Do Not Track and they think they're taken care of when they really aren't," Abine's Downey said.

Mozilla, which was the first browser maker to include Do Not Track technology into its software, has a different take on it than Google. The company will continue to work with the W3C on creating an international standard and hopes to design a feature that meets three goals: give users "actionable and informed choices" by allowing them to opt in or out of data collection and use; "collect and retain the least amount of information necessary and use anonymous aggregate data whenever possible;" and allow users to take "control of their information and online experiences," Alex Fowler, head of privacy and public policy for Mozilla, wrote in a blog post today.

But Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), complained that the W3C's process had been "hijacked by people who are reflexively opposed to commerce on the Internet." The forces supporting a broad Do Not Track role are "trying to kill advertising on the Internet," he added.

"You cannot literally, physically, technologically can not deliver through IP pages without being able to collect things like IP address, so the notion of Do Not Track sets up a very odd expectation that you can shut certain things off and still get your Internet pages delivered," he said.

Many parties, including IAB, objected to the name "Do Not Track" for the very reason that it could be interpreted broadly to include more than just targeted ads, according to Rothenberg.

Asked if there might there not be a middle ground where consumers that want basic content can opt out of tracking for everything but IP address, Rothenberg suggested that people wouldn't be able to distinguish between that scenario and situations where they would need to opt in to tracking in order to get special services, like personalized content.

"If the thought is that people can press a button and still get their customized home pages and all manner of relevant information without their personal data getting through, it's just not going to happen," he said.

We can expect to see some battles between privacy advocates and marketers over this issue as the groups try to meld the two Do Not Track efforts. Stay tuned.