Summary:

Congress and even some tech companies are promising to get serious about “Do Not Track” legislation, which will let consumers tell companies not to collect their personal information. But any meaningful change is unlikely.

Big Brother is watching you
photo: Flickr / Candida.Performa (on vacation)

Online ad tracking is a bit like gun control or immigration — Congress is always bringing it up, but never actually passes a law. And like those other issues, even the prospect of a law makes opponents nervous.

Witness the ad industry’s reaction to claims it is dragging its feet on “Do Not Track,” a system to let consumers tell companies not to harvest their online personal information.

“We keep getting demagogued by the FTC,” Stu Ingis, the head of the Digital Advertising Alliance, told AdWeek. The remark came in response to a speech this week in which the head of the Federal Trade Commission suggested new rules might be on the way.

Does Ingis have reason to worry? Perhaps. Consider that after a year of relative silence, the dreaded (in the ad industry, anyway) “Do Not Track” phrase is back in the news on a regular basis. Next week, for instance, U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va)  is holding a public hearing to trumpet his do-not-track legislation. Meanwhile, Microsoft and Mozilla are setting their Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers to block third-party cookies — small, ubiquitous computer programs that record the web pages you visit.

For advertisers, these developments threaten to throw a wrench into an ad system that puts a high value on “retargeted” ads. Indeed, there is already evidence that fewer cookies means lower ad prices.

On the other hand, any type of sweeping law is unlikely. While politicians like beating the privacy drum, the details — and even the definition — of “Do Not Track” are hopelessly complicated. Companies like Google and Facebook (which are giant advertising firms) claim the term is confusing to consumers and, in some cases, have chosen to ignore browser instructions about cookies.

At the same time, these companies are doubling down on ad products that target individual users. Facebook, for instance, now lets customers buy ads based on third party data and is even partnering with retail outlets like drug stores to collect users’ offline shopping information. The social network and other tech companies, which have growing clout in Washington, will lobby hard to prevent any serious change to the current ad system.

Finally, the focus on cookies could ultimately prove to be a red herring in the”Do Not Track” debate. This is because more consumers are using mobile devices to access the internet — and these devices don’t rely on cookies for advertising in the first place.  In response, Apple has developed a sophisticated way for advertisers to target users’ devices while companies like TapAd and Adelphic have found ways to identify users no matter what device they use. In other words, any new “Do Not Track” law that targeted cookies would have a limited effect in a world where marketers follow us on our mobile devices.

The bottom line is there has been more sound and fury than usual about “Do Not Track” but that comprehensive privacy reforms are nowhere in sight.

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