Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why Do-Not-Track Will Not Work

I love this Op-Ed piece in Business Week on the fatal flaws of the "do-not-track" proposal for interactive advertising and marketing. "Do-not-track" was proposed by a group self-styled "consumer advocates," and was much-discussed at the Federal Trade Commission's "Town Hall" on behavioral marketing two weeks ago. The proposal was riddled with ironies, not least of which was the group's recommendation that the Government start keeping lists of people -- by name -- who don't want anonymous surfing data utilized to improve the utility of online communications.

Christopher Wolf,
a litigation partner in the Washington office of the Proskauer Rose law firm and the chair of its Privacy & Data Security Practice Group, recognizes the irony -- and also the extremist nature of the proposal. Here's what he wrote in Business Week:

"This would take privacy law to a new level, where protection is given not only to private data (names, addresses, account numbers, etc.) but also to anonymous data (e.g., data collected through cookie technology), which would be legally regulated. The complexity and enforcement problems with a 'do not track' law are enormous. Advocates liken it to the 'do not call' rules that pertain to telemarketers, but only the names are similar. Compiling and applying a list of those who do not want tailored advertising will be a technological nightmare. Compliance, to the extent it can occur at all, will be costly. Ultimately, consumers will suffer through increased costs passed on to them, and opportunities for more useful consumer information will be diminished."

You have to hand it to the extremist groups. By co-opting the tenor and feel of the telemarketing "do not call" concept, they have made a complex, radical idea -- one that would dramatically curtail marketers' and media's current ability to engage in advertising, marketing research, and information and entertainment delivery -- seem simple and benign. Fortunately, the FTC seemed to recognize this at the Town Hall: Commissioners repeatedly queried the anti-consumerist advocates, "Where's the harm?," and were met not with current information, but hypotheses about the future.

The real harm, as Mr. Wolf shows, will be if access to information is shut down. Prices will rise, and consumer choice will diminish.

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