W3C's failed Do Not Track crusade tumbles to ad-blockers' Vietnam

Worst outcome ever for clueless online admen


The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Do Not Track (DNT) proposal, to give users a way to tell web sites not to track them, recently reached its "Last Call" stage.

Last call is what comes just before a standard becomes “recommended”, which is W3C-speak for “done”. Indeed, most browsers have already implemented at least some aspects of the proposed Do Not Track standard.

Unfortunately, the DNT standard and the tools already available in web browsers are useless because, by and large, the advertising industry ignores them.

There are a handful of sites that will respect your DNT settings, should you turn them on. Twitter and Medium are among the biggest sites to do so. But the largely unknown ad networks that load cookies in the background on your favourite sites have, thus far, totally ignored the DNT header.

Despite the seeming clarity built into the name, many advertisers claim they're befuddled by it. Yahoo’s former chief trust officer Anne Toth (now at Slack) once claimed that: "When a consumer puts Do Not Track in the header, we don't know what they mean."

This profound lack of respect for users is a large part of both why the web needs something like DNT and why it has thus far been largely been ignored by the ad industry.

Conceived by Mozilla, DNT has lacked teeth because there's no way to enforce it. Your browser can broadcast the DNT header to websites all it likes, but it's up to the goodwill of the sites to honour it. It's a bit like politely asking the wolf not to eat the sheep.

When Mozilla unveiled DNT in 2011, most users were blissfully unaware of how closely they were being tracked and how much that data could tell advertisers about them.

Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. A Pew Internet survey earlier this year found users care about online privacy. In fact, a whopping 93 per cent of US adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is "important" and 74 per cent go further and call it "very important."

Most publishers, though, have embraced an advertising-based revenue model that works much better – for readers and advertisers – when ads are tailored to users' interests. The only way to tailor to user interest is to discover what those interests are.

This leaves the web at something of an impasse.

Users don't want to be tracked, but neither do they seem willing to pay for content. If there's no revenue, there's no content.

What the web really needs is some magical third way. In lieu of that, DNT could have offered a middle road for the time being. Instead, so far, it has been an abject failure.

Still, it's not users who need to lament the failure of DNT. It's the advertisers – and by extension, publishers – who missed an opportunity. By failing to support DNT, the advertising industry is going to end up getting something with much more far-reaching consequences – ad blockers.

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