Ad industry to Web: Trust us, we're lying

You say you don't want dozens of obscure companies recording every website you visit. What are you -- a commie?

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Immediately, the ad industry said it would refuse to honor that flag. Why? In the words of the Digital Advertising Alliance:

Machine-driven Do Not Track does not represent user choice; it represents browser-manufacturer choice. Allowing browser manufacturers to determine the kinds of information users receive could negatively impact the vast consumer benefits and Internet experiences delivered by DAA participants and millions of other websites that consumers value.

By consumer choice, what the ad industry means is allowing you to click that tiny blue AdChoices triangle you find on some Web ads to find out "how data powers your experience" and -- if you're willing to click your way through a few more screens -- opt out of receiving targeted ads from those particular companies.

Again, all that clicking will do is stop them from sending you relevant ads; it won't stop them from collecting data about your browsing habits.

In other words: If your browser is set to block tracking by default, that's not a true expression of how you really feel. If your browser is set to allow tracking by default, however, that is a true expression of how you feel. Got that?

When someone who's not in the online advertising industry points this stuff out, we invariably get dire warnings from people inside the industry saying if people opt out of tracking, the "free Internet" will shrivel up and die.

Yes, if DNT manages to actually prevent tracking, the online ad industry will take the $32 billion it spent last year and go home. Never mind that only a fraction of those dollars were spent on targeted ads.

My question: What are they going to do with those billions in ad dollars -- spend them instead on billboards and bus benches?

The industry will also argue, and rightly so, that the data collected today is very bare bones and stored anonymously. In theory, at least, they won't be able to attach a name, email address, or income bracket to your Web browsing history. That's typically true -- until researchers invariably discover it isn't, in some cases at least.

But what about tomorrow, when the data collection gets richer and the temptation to use use that data for lead generation becomes overwhelming? Knowing that I clicked on a car ad is worth a few pennies to an advertiser or publisher today. Knowing my name, email address, or phone number would be worth considerably more to the automotive dealers in my area.

In some cases, a tracking site wouldn't need my identity at all. Say I use my browser to read articles about lung cancer. What's to stop a data collector from dropping a "high-risk customer" cookie on my hard drive? Then when I try to sign up on for health insurance on the Web, I get denied -- no reason given. As more transactions occur entirely in the cloud, this kind of scenario could become quite common.

Who says they're going to keep my data safe and anonymous and used only to deliver "interesting" ads? Yes, that's right: the online ad industry.

Given the industry's long history of prevarication, obfuscation, and outright deception, why would anyone in their right mind trust these people?

A PR wonk who likes to brag about fooling the media (and who shall go unnamed here) recently published a book called "Trust Me, I'm Lying." That sums up my feelings about the online advertising industry as well as anything.

Would you choose to be anonymously tracked just to see more relevant ads? Explain why below or email me:

This article, "Ad industry to Web: Trust us, we're lying," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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