Politics is once again rearing its empty head in the form of “Do Not Track” legislation. There is a bill working its way through the New York legislature that would effectively limit the ability of web advertisers to collect information about consumers as they move around the internet. The corollary most often cited is that this is the on-line version of the “Do Not Call” lists that became so popular a few years back.
If this legislation plays out like others of its ilk, a noisy, self-righteous minority will rock a large, successful industry back on its heels, and the ultimate loser will be all of us. There are some fundamental differences between what drove the Do Not Call (DNC) initiative vs. what is driving Do Not Track (DNT). We’ve all had telemarketers call at dinner, trying to sell us something we don’t want. It’s annoying because 1) we’re having dinner, and 2) we are unlikely to want what they sell. When the telemarketing industry was in its heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s, the internet was in a very nascent stage, particularly compared to what it’s like now. The only way to reach people then was snail mail or phone, and phone calls gave that critical real-time contact. The timing is annoying, but there’s no point in calling during the day if no one is home. The real issue is not timing, but content, and part of the reason the telemarketing industry has such a bad reputation is due to poor targeting capabilities.
That whole paradigm has shifted very rapidly in recent years with the rise of on-line behavioral targeting applications. The internet as an access mechanism is vastly more data-centric than telemarketing could ever hope to be, which means that telemarketing’s two strongest limitations (bad timing and irrelevancy) are not applicable. E-mails do not interrupt the way phone calls do, and if the right targeting applications have been put in place, the information you get is actually on point. I mean, what is wrong with advertising that matches what you’re trying to find?
The worst people to define technology usage are politicians. They’re not technologists, they’re not even business people; they pander to the loudest voice, and it’s always the extremists. I don’t think most people honestly give much thought to being tracked on-line, they just go about their business, blissfully unaware. Agitators with too much time on their hands feel compelled to get the slumbering masses all wound up by screaming “privacy violation” at the top of their lungs, and they learned very quickly that the fastest panic response will come from politicians. Meanwhile, the ad networks are too busy sniping at each other to notice they’re all about to get a NebuAd style whupping (again). Hope you enjoy getting spam, because if this legislation passes, you’re going to start getting a whole lot more.