How Damaging Would 'Do Not Track' Be to Mobile Advertising?

The digital advertising industry opposes "Do Not Track" (DNT). No surprise there. Indeed, the industry went "ape shit" (to use the vernacular) when Microsoft declared that IE 10 in Windows 8 would be set to DNT by default. Yahoo and the The Digital Advertising Alliance, a trade group comprised of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the IAB, the DMA, the Association of National Advertisers and the American Advertising Federation, said they would simply "ignore" IE 10's DNT default settings. 

The rationale ostensibly was: "Microsoft is making a decision for the consumer; this isn't the consumer's decision." However another reason was that DNT fundamentally threatens behavioral targeting, profiling and retargeting.

A widely held view in the online advertising industry is that consumers, if they fully understood the benefits of targeting, would willingly accept it in exchange for more relevant ads. There's mixed evidence on this point.

In a Q1 2012 survey of roughly 2,000 US adults the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 68% of respondents didn't want to be tracked and targeted while 28% were comfortable with it "because it means I see ads and get information about things I'm really interested in." Thus two-thirds of these people were explicitly rejecting the notion of trading privacy for more relevant ads. 

 Online targeted advertising

This morning the US Federal Trade Commission released a report on mobile privacy. It makes a boatload of recommendations to developers, OEMs/platform providers and ad networks. Without listing them out in detail, they mostly focus on education and disclosures. However the FTC also recommends that platforms (iOS, Android, Windows, etc.) adopt a global DNT capability that would block third parties from collecting information about them (including location).

Here's what the FTC says about DNT in the report:

Some consumers may not want companies to track their behavior across apps. Indeed, one survey found that 85% of consumers want to have choices about targeted mobile ads. A DNT mechanism for mobile devices could address this concern.

Accordingly, Commission staff continues to call on stakeholders to develop a DNT mechanism that would prevent an entity from developing profiles about mobile users. A DNT setting placed at the platform level could give consumers who are concerned about this practice a way to control the transmission of information to third parties as consumers are using apps on their mobile devices.

The platforms are in a position to better control the distribution of user data for users who have elected not to be tracked by third parties. Offering this setting or control through the platform will allow consumers to make a one-time selection rather than having to make decisions on an app-by-app basis. Apps that wish to offer services to consumers that are supported by behavioral advertising would remain free to engage potential customers in a dialogue to explain the value of behavioral tracking and obtain consent to engage in such tracking.

Apple has already begun to innovate with a DNT setting on its platform. Apple’s iOS6 allows consumers to exercise some control over advertisers’ tracking activities via the “Limit Ad Tracking” setting. Although the setting could be more prominent, this is a promising development, and we encourage Apple and other platforms to continue moving towards an effective DNT setting on mobile devices that meets the criteria we have previously articulated for an effective DNT system: that it be (1) universal, (2) easy to find and use, (3) persistent, (4) effective and enforceable, and (5) limit collection of data, not just its use to serve advertisements. We will continue to have discussions with stakeholders in the mobile marketplace on this important issue.

If such a platform-level DNT capability was available -- and obvious -- to smartphone and tablet users, I suspect that a majority of them would adopt it, as the Pew data above suggest. Perhaps a meaningful minority percentage of users would accept tracking/profiling as the price of more relevant advertising. But I still believe it would be less than 50%.

Of course one of the things that users don't understand is that they'll get ads regardless -- just lower-quality ads.