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Why Yahoo! wants to protect the predators at your office party

By Simon Davies

Yahoo! yesterday released a helpful statement explaining why the company has no intention of respecting the Do Not Track surveillance-busting feature on Internet Explorer 10.

Given that customers didn’t opt-in to being tracked in the first place, this could be a reasonable request for them to make.

For the uninitiated, Do Not Track (DNT) is a technology that enables customers to send a desist request to advertising companies that want to track user activities across the Internet. It says to them “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 could be 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, IE10 decided to switch on DNT by default. This move infuriated the online tracking industry but put a smile on the face of many consumers

In any reasonable world-view a 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! cried foul, arguing that the DNT feature should be enabled only through specific customer choice, not at the whim of some presumptuous browser.

Yahoo! is arguing that it’s OK for browsers to have DNT switched “off” by default, because this empowers customers to turn it on, whereas when DNT is switched “on” by default it takes away people’s choices,

That is to say, Yahoo! is arguing that it’s OK for browsers to have DNT switched “off” by default, because this empowers customers to turn it on, whereas when DNT is switched “on” by default it takes away people’s choices, thus disempowering them.

This might seem at first a wholly illogical and self-serving argument intended to protect a predatory advertising industry, so I should explain the reasoning.

When governments started pushing in the 1970s for the compulsory wearing of seat belts the auto industry argued that while the idea of seat belts should be supported, the decision to wear one should be left to the individual. And yes, most people wanted to be safer in their car but in an era of overregulation no-one really wanted their choices taken away by Big Brother government. And anyway, they argued, you can’t believe the statistics peddled by government as they don’t take into account non-linear factors such as people randomly increasing risk-taking behaviour. Thus compulsory seat belts may actually increase fatalities, so people wouldn’t want to have that condition imposed on them.

This should explain the rationale, but let’s explore the Yahoo! reasoning in a more ordinary context.

Some people may actually want to be stalked, and while they can take off the t-shirt if they choose, there’s a point of principle at stake here. Stalkers have rights too..

Let’s say I go to a neighbour’s party (we’ll equate that to going online) and my motivation is to see old friends and maybe get a little drunk on the excellent rum punch the host has provided (let’s say that’s the equivalent of surfing sites). It’s entirely reasonable to assume then that I didn’t go to the party to be stalked or ogled by some lecherous character who wants to exploit my presence.

However what Yahoo! is saying is that by going to the party I have signalled my willingness to be stalked and ogled, but – thankfully –  it’s reasonable for me to put on a t-shirt with the words “Do Not Stalk”. Some perverts will not respect the t-shirt, but at least I have been empowered to assert my wishes.

Now let’s extend this groaning analogy to imagine that the host has decided that stalking has become an unacceptable problem and that he will provide every party-goer with a “Do Not Stalk ” t-shirt as part of the dress code. Hang on! Suddenly people’s choices have been compromised. Creating a default environment with a strong message that stalking is not acceptable is simply wrong. Some people may actually want to be stalked, and while they can take off the t-shirt if they choose, there’s a point of principle at stake here. Stalkers have rights too, particularly in this over-regulated post-Adam Smith world.

So there you have it. We can talk at length about the W3C principles and arcane user service agreements, but in the end it all comes down to whether or not you choose to defend vulnerable people against predators. End of story.