On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) quietly rejected a petition to force edge providers to honor the Do Not Track (DNT) setting. Rightly so. The FCC, consistent with its decision in the Open Internet Order, stated that it has "no intention of regulating the Internet, per se, or any Internet applications or content."
Meanwhile, the fact that tens of millions of people have proactively enabled this setting in their browsers, even though it accomplishes nothing, speaks to an obvious unsolved problem. Digital Content Next (DCN) has called significant attention to this problem in the past few years as the risks and consequences become clearer each day.
DCN is the only association exclusively focused on the needs of premium publishers, and we're deeply aware that the trusted relationship of publishers— with both advertisers and consumers—is vital to the media industry's future. Balancing that harmony to maximize value for advertisers and consumers has always been the domain of the publisher. In recent years, publishing has moved from words and pictures to encompass entire experiences built on incredibly innovative and complex technologies.
For years, research organizations like Nielsen and Pew have provided evidence that there is a trust issue with online advertising. Although digital advertising is quite successful for direct marketers, it often fails to meet the criteria needed for sustainable and healthy growth. Increasingly, digital media advertising has grown to be a direct marketers' dream with limitless data, tracking and no real risk in chasing audiences across the Internet. In other words, consumer trust is traded for clicks and tricks that direct marketers can measure and value. In the recent words of well-known marketing expert, Seth Godin, direct marketers don't care about the long-term viability of digital publishing and "will switch to a better yield the moment they can. That's the direct marketer's job."
Well I'm here to say that consumers do care, and they're finding easier ways to block third-party tracking or ads altogether. There is an escalating technology war between consumers and companies that want to track them across websites, apps and devices. We're turning the Internet into a battle zone where clickbait and bottom feeders are the norm. We need to give consumers an easy, persistent way to express their choice. Premium content and experiences cannot thrive in an environment where consumer trust is at an all-time low.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) just finished its DNT standard that would signal a consumer's desire to not be tracked by third parties (or first parties when outside of the context of their relationship) but still allow reasonable uses of tracking data for fraud prevention, frequency capping, billing and debugging services—many of which are mirrored in the Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising.
Unfortunately, consumers' weapon of choice, ad blockers, don't allow for this kind of reasonable and balanced approach. And we're only talking about an opt-out for consumers, as opposed to requiring opt-in consent for consumers as others might want. It's worth noting the W3C created a standard with a lot of hard work by a number of parties despite a tremendous amount of lobbying to bury them in their tracks. The fact that many of the people and organizations that fought off progress on DNT are the same ones that financially benefit from the tracking and data collection is not surprising.
So yes, the FCC can't require DNT because its regulations can't be applied to websites, ad tech and advertisers. The Federal Trade Commission can continue to pursue deceptive and false claims but doesn't have rulemaking authority to push proactive initiatives across the Internet. The industry's self-regulatory body, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), was created for this very purpose—to implement reasonable, balanced proposals for the health of the industry and to obviate the need for ham-handed government regulation.
The DAA currently, and quite astoundingly, operates a cookie-based opt out. It's time to upgrade to a more persistent, consumer friendly opt-out using the DNT signal clearly built into the browser. If the industry can research ways to track beyond the cookie then they shouldn't ignore the most obvious signal that exists to not be tracked. The DAA promised to implement a DNT standard in 2012. It's time to finally make good on that promise. There are no excuses left.
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