The True Meaning of DNT

The widespread adoption of audience targeting by Madison Avenue has prompted the Federal Trade Commission to call for more oversight of the industry through a proposed solution named Do Not Track (DNT). While the government’s intention is noble, DNT has become somewhat of a misnomer by adding more confusion than clarity. It’s time that we set the record straight.

The conversations taking place about behavioral targeting is occurring between the wrong parties. As DNT stands today, the dialogue is happening between consumers and monetization platforms, which are providing a universal opt-out feature at the browser level. Rather, this conversation should be between consumers and publishers.

Publishers need the ability to monetize their content either through subscriptions or ad-supported content, while users need to know how their information is being used. Therefore, what’s needed is a more balanced approach that acknowledges the benefits of subsidized content and illustrates trade-offs in a non-advertising world. What is not being discussed is how DNT in its current form is a mechanism for shutting down this process that otherwise funds content that provides value to both consumers and publishers.

Much has been made of the similarities between DNT and the Do-Not-Call list introduced by lawmakers in the 1990s to address the rising concern of telemarketers. This comparison is misplaced and points people in the wrong direction. Since phone bills have always been paid by the consumer, there is no value for them to take telemarketing calls. So Do-Not-Call was created to give the ultimate choice to the paying consumer. Sounds fair to me.

But let’s be clear that there is no parallel to DNT where consumers are getting free content. Would consumers have agreed to get telemarketing calls if their phone service was free? Maybe. Does it make sense to offer free phone service if there is no value to the provider? That’s the question we need to address with DNT. Otherwise, DNT should be named the “Do Not Pay – let someone else pay for me” feature.

What is needed is not less or more regulation, but a revision to the current DNT proposals that preserves the interests of both consumers and publishers by giving them control over DNT. So what would that revision look like? Here’s an example:

  • Users would have the ability to select DNT settings in their browser.
  • This preference would be recognized by the publisher site the user navigates to.
  • The Publisher site presents the user with a message that acknowledges their DNT setting and asks if the Publisher can override that setting to give them a better site experience, more free content, etc.
  • Users choose! (Their DNT preference is applicable for this publisher site only.)

This model would open the lines of communication between consumers and publishers on the application of DNT while preserving the benefits of monetization for publishers and the service (aka free content) provided to consumers. It is also vitally important that DNT not erase cookies as this would still be counterproductive in the disruption of the monetization process for ad-supported content (e-commerce would be severely impacted). What it should ensure is that the state of the cookie be intact while DNT is present.

We would be supportive of a revision of DNT to include the above consumer-publisher dialogue. However, we also want to make clear that the principles being adopted by the DAA and NAI, where consumers get global and local opt-out capabilities and transparency through the about ads icon offers another viable implementation of this same goal. This self-regulatory approach (we have heard industry estimates of over a trillion ads being served with this icon enabled) is already receiving wide adoption and aims to deliver on the goals of transparency and simplicity for the consumer.

DNT promises to alter the way advertising is served and needs to be transparent in its impact on both consumers and publishers. Let’s be clear and upfront on what exactly DNT is designed to do. We can start by bringing the right parties together to have a fruitful and productive conversation about the pros and cons of sponsored or free content.

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