Pity the poor online marketers. Their unfettered access to your consumer data is being threatened, and they don’t like it.

From last Sunday’s New York Times:

Do Not Track? Advertisers Say ‘Don’t Tread on Us’

THE campaign to defang the “Do Not Track” movement began late last month.

Do Not Track mechanisms are features on browsers — like Mozilla’s Firefox — that give consumers the option of sending out digital signals asking companies to stop collecting information about their online activities for purposes of targeted advertising.

Can’t have that, right?

So the Association of National Advertisers, along with a gaggle of federal lawmakers the association has in their pocket, protested efforts by Microsoft to “[make] Do Not Track the default option in the company’s forthcoming Internet Explorer 10 browser.” That could prevent marketers from “collecting data on up to 43 percent of browsers used by Americans.”

Can’t have that, right?

Microsoft, clearly, doesn’t agree.

So far, Microsoft has shrugged off advertisers’ complaints. In an e-mailed statement, Brendon Lynch, Microsoft’s chief privacy officer, said a recent company study of computer users in the United States and Europe concluded that 75 percent wanted Microsoft to turn on the Do Not Track mechanism.

“Consumers want and expect strong privacy protection to be built into Microsoft products and services,” Mr. Lynch wrote.

So Microsoft won’t let marketers use its consumer data for their own purposes. But that doesn’t mean Microsoft won’t use that data for its own purposes.

From yesterday’s New York Times (dead-tree edition):

Microsoft Expands Gathering and Use of Data From Web Products

Microsoft instituted a policy on Friday that gives the company broad leeway over how it gathers and uses personal information from consumers of its free, Web-based products like e-mail, search and instant messaging.

Almost no one noticed, however, even though Microsoft’s policy changes are much the same as those that Google made to its privacy rules this year.

Google’s expanded powers drew scathing criticism from privacy advocates, probing inquiries from regulators and broadside attacks from rivals. Those included Microsoft, which bought full-page newspaper ads telling Google users that Google did not care about their privacy, an accusation it quickly denied.

What’s sauce for the Google is apparently not sauce for the gander Microsoft wants.

But there’s something bigger than data-to-data competition going on here. As the earlier Times piece noted:

[W]hat is really at stake here is the future of the surveillance economy.

The advent of Do Not Track threatens the barter system wherein consumers allow sites and third-party ad networks to collect information about their online activities in exchange for open access to maps, e-mail, games, music, social networks and whatnot. Marketers have been fighting to preserve this arrangement, saying that collecting consumer data powers effective advertising tailored to a user’s tastes. In turn, according to this argument, those tailored ads enable smaller sites to thrive and provide rich content.

“If we do away with this relevant advertising, we are going to make the Internet less diverse, less economically successful, and frankly, less interesting,” says Mike Zaneis, the general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry group.

And frankly, less lucrative.

Maybe what we need is a Do Not Trick Movement, eh?


John R. Carroll, who also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town, is an NPR media analyst and mass communication professor at Boston University.
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