«

»

Three healthy indications that online privacy may have turned a corner

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 11.12.41

By Simon Davies

Last week Twitter issued an announcement that deserved much more acclamation than it received. Indeed, what Twitter has just done is nothing short of heroic.

These are vitally important advances for consumer protection – and particularly so now the world knows just how vulnerable data has become.

The company, which makes around $600 million dollars a year in ad revenue, has decided to go up against every major advertising organisation in the world by supporting a powerful privacy feature that helps prevent advertisers from tracking the movements of users across the web.

Do Not Track (DNT) is a technology that enables customers to send a desist request to advertising companies that want to track what they are doing and seeing online. It says to advertisers “please do not monitor, track or analyse my online activities”.

Given that customers didn’t opt-in to being tracked in the first place, this is probably a reasonable request for them to make. More and more people are becoming irate about this entire industry.

Recognising that most customers don’t want to be tracked, Microsoft decided last year that its Internet Explorer 10 browser would switch on DNT by default. In other words, IE10 customers would be protected automatically. This move infuriated the online ad industry but it did put a smile on the face of many consumers. It’s rare these days to witness an actual advance for privacy.

These are vitally important advances for consumer protection – and particularly so now the world knows just how vulnerable data has become. The bottom line is that more customers will be protected because there isn’t a requirement to go to the settings bar and initiate an action.

So far so good. And you might imagine that any sensible advertising company would want to respect the wishes of customers. Not so, apparently. Against the backdrop of a howl of protest by the online advertising industry against Microsoft’s decision Yahoo! and other advertising companies cried foul, arguing that the DNT feature should be enabled only through a specific customer action, not at the whim of some presumptuous browser. The advertising industry said point blank that it has no intention of respecting requests from IE10.

Jonathan Mayer has outflanked the global ad industry

Jonathan Mayer has outflanked the global ad industry

The perverse logic of the industry is that it’s OK for browsers to have DNT switched “off” by default (allowing tracking), because this empowers customers to turn it on, whereas when DNT is switched “on” by default (thus blocking tracking) it takes away people’s choices.

Enter Twitter with the bombshell that it intends respecting the principle that people have a default right to be protected. This is an important move for more than just the 200 million active Twitter users. It seems the ad industry may be considering a U-turn. Or, perhaps more accurately, it may have been forced into a U-turn.

It’s too early to get excited, but the signs are positive. Until now the ad industry had based its strategy on the goal of a unified front. That is, if every advertising company held firm to a common position that ad tracking had to be opt-out, then the W3C consortium – tasked with the responsibility of sorting out this mess – would be bullied into agreeing.

Until now the strategy has worked, with no advertising company recognising the IE10 requests, leaving Microsoft in a lonely place. However there’s been a shift in thinking from the advertising companies, brought about both by Twitter tipping the scales and by Firefox and Apple moving to the IE10 position.

Up to fifty percent of browser activity will soon be sending the DNT signals, blowing the industry’s previous estimates clean out of the water.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), representing online ad companies, now projects that up to fifty percent of browser activity will soon be sending the DNT signals, blowing the industry’s previous estimates clean out of the water. Customers are far more activist on blocking ad tracking than it had anticipated.

IAB’s general counsel Mike Zaneis has told Business Insider that the adtech industry has proposed that “we could possibly honor all DNT flags” if, in return, the ad businesses were still allowed to use anonymous, “de-identified” data for ad targeting.

Much of the background work at a technical level has been achieved by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer, who has managed to push Firefox across to a more opt-in position. Mayer was the researcher who discovered the tracking bug in Safari.

Zaneis told a W3C meeting on DNT: “Yes, we had fought tooth and nail on the default and UI issue, and we’re now willing to take those off the table in the name of progress. Now the question is what level of de-identification is appropriate and implementable. We want to have that discussion.”

The odds are quickly stacking against the ad industry’s previous hard-line position, but the fight is by no means over. There is a whole generation of new tracking technologies out there that offer new possibilities for ad companies outside of the traditional cookie framework.