Do not track browser tool is just permission-less marketing

Gibbs isn't impressed by the FTC's proposal

"Most of us on the Commission believe that it's time for a Do Not Track mechanism with respect to third-party ads; that is, consumers should be able to choose whether or not to allow the collection of data about online searching and browsing. … We propose a new framework to guide businesses as they formulate best practices.Chairman Jon Leibowitz on the release of a Preliminary FTC Staff Privacy Report on a consumer privacy framework.

- Remarks by Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

FTC wants "Do not track" feature among wide-ranging online privacy changes

OK, before I get going let me explain what this is all about: On Dec. 1, the FTC produced a report titled, "Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change," that recommended three tactics to address the issue of -- you guessed it -- consumer privacy.

The three legs of the FTC's wobbly stool are: first, companies should adopt "certain privacy protections into their operations" as well as "collect and retain data only if they have a legitimate business need"; second, privacy statements and options should be made simpler and more visible; and third, consumers should be given a "do not track" browser setting that, when selected, would indicate to Web sites not to compile browsing and history information.

Even though Leibowitz said "most of us" on the Commission believe it is time for a Do Not Track option, the five-man board *unanimously* approved the somewhat limp-wristed report which, in turn, defers the final report and its conclusions until sometime in 2011.

What the heck is the matter with these people? Did the mothers of the FTC board drop them on their heads when they were babies? Why on earth would these raving bureaucrats think that an "opt out" option is the right way go?

OK, I guess I actually know why: Political pressure. To get to where they have with this report the FTC wonks had many meetings and "roundtables" with "stakeholders," academics, and any one else who was interested. From that input they created the report, which is to say if you want to know what defined the report, just follow the money.

The problem with the report is that a de facto opt-out system is, in reality, ethically dubious because it presupposes that all of the consumers are completely informed and they actually know about the choices they have and what those choices really mean. This is, obviously, not the case.

The theory is all well and good but there's a huge, glaring and fundamental flaw in the whole report: Opt-out is not the same as opt-in.

In the philosophy of "permission marketing," a concept pioneered by Seth Godin, the consumer is never, and I repeat, never, engaged by a vendor without the vendor first asking whether the consumer wants to engage – that is, whether they want to "opt-in." In permission marketing, there's no default engagement, it's all about symmetry in the relationship.

In a permission marketing environment the consumer expresses interest, their willingness to engage, by going to the vendor's site where the vendor then makes a deal with the consumer along the lines of "you give me your e-mail address and or some other interesting data and, in return, I'll give you X," where X is something the consumer perceives as being valuable. Without an "exchange of equivalent value" the relationship becomes skewed and "untrustworthy" by the consumer.

What the FTC is supporting with the "Do Not Track" strategy is an opt-out system built-in to browsers where you, the consumer, are treated as agreeing, by default, unless you understand the whole idea of a system that requires you to build your own personal list of allowed and disallowed sites, to being tracked with no exchange of equivalent value!

Worse still, the computer industry, as represented by the likes of the free, open source products of the Mozilla Corporation, the organization behind the incredibly successful Firefox browser, is falling into line behind the FTC's position. Nope, despite having a reportedly powerful anti-tracking tool for the Firefox browser the Mozilla organization has, reportedly, dropped its concern that "it would force advertisers to resort to use even sneakier techniques and could slow down the performance of some websites." What a load of you know what.

The whole "Do Not Track" concept is flawed and, over the next few months, unless you, my industry colleagues, speak up, there's a real danger that this nonsense could become law. Be warned, while it might, in some way, benefit your company, in every other way, it will cost you personally.

Gibbs knows the cost of everything in Ventura, Calif. Your guess about the value to backspin@gibbs.com.

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