Personalized user experiences & user data privacy

As our lives become increasingly intertwined with the World Wide Web, the battle between personalized user experiences and user data privacy is more acute than ever. On the one hand, personalized content is an expectation for our online experience: The New York Times should show us news that’s relevant to our interests, Yahoo should personalize their front page with things we care about, and Facebook should show us dating ads if we, among other criteria, actively list our status as ‘single’.

On the other hand, just because we enter a Google search for an obscure medical condition, update our relationship status on Facebook, or watch Gangnam Style six times on YouTube, doesn’t necessarily mean we want web browsers, advertisers, or anybody in-between following us around the Internet.

For the end user, this creates a dilemma: ‘Given the choice between online privacy or a personalized experience, what is more important to me? If I know what is important to me, how can I signal my preference?’

Enter Do Not Track (DNT), a technology and policy proposal that allows users to decide whether their online activity should be tracked by websites and advertising networks. The measure is significant in its aim to become the first standardized, universally respected user preference tool for content personalization[*] – implemented by every browser vendor, configured by every user, and respected by every website operator.  It’s success rides on these three factors working seamlessly together; undoing even one piece of the puzzle will detriment the entire effort.

Do Not Track has gained considerable momentum since 2010, and many leading technology companies (browser vendors, website operators and advertisers alike) support the implementation of Do Not Track. However, Microsoft recently took its support of DNT one step too far by automatically enabling the Do Not Track header for Internet Explorer 10. On the surface, this appears to be a reasonable choice that benefits consumers:

In a world where consumers live a large part of their lives online, it is critical that we build trust that their personal information will be treated with respect, and that they will be given a choice to have their information used for unexpected purposes. While there is still work to do in agreeing on an industry-wide definition of DNT, we believe turning on Do Not Track by default in IE10 on Windows 8 is an important step in this process of establishing privacy by default, putting consumers in control and building trust online.

Yet Microsoft’s decision raises some larger questions that have serious consequences for consumers, Do Not Track, and the future of the World Wide Web:

If Microsoft considers “Do Not Track” such a pivotal part of the web industry’s future, why don’t they take it upon themselves to educate their user base about Do Not Track, and help users choose whether enabling DNT is right for them? If privacy, control, and trust are paramount, why are they controlling the decisions for consumers, rather than making decisions with consumers?

Microsoft is a member of both the US and EU IAB, the NAI and has six members on the “Do Not Track” working group (only Comcast has more members on the working group); they are part of every forum that shapes the rules, education and awareness of online privacy; they are part of every conversation and every initiative to bring personalized content to users in a responsible manner; they have the ability to influence, shape and guide the future of personalized content & privacy.

But they choose not to.

Even if these forums are not sufficient for Microsoft to deliver this important message, they could still educate the public through their own software, be that Internet Explorer, Windows, or Bing – all of which still enjoy a sizable market share.

Instead, Microsoft seems to assume that their users are, and will always be, uneducated about the matter of online privacy, despite their own ability to influence and change this fact.

As a result, Microsoft’s choice to make this decision on behalf of all their users, without any effort to educate the public and without involving any relevant forums, has caused serious upheaval in the web and advertising industry.

The IAB immediately spoke out against the proposed default:

We do not believe that default settings that automatically make choices for consumers increase transparency or consumer choice, nor do they factor in the need for digital businesses to innovate and thrive economically. Actions such as these will undermine the success of our industry’s self-regulatory program.

Yahoo deliberated on the subject and then announced that it would be ignoring the “Do Not Track” header if it was sent by IE 10:

Ultimately, we believe that DNT must map to user intent — not to the intent of one browser creator, plug-in writer, or third-party software service.

Even Mozilla, the company behind Firefox and originators of the “Do Not Track” specification do not turn it on by default and instead provide a single checkbox in their settings to do so easily:

DNT allows for a conversation between the person sitting behind the keyboard and the site that they want to visit. If DNT is on by default, it’s not a conversation. For DNT to be effective, it must actually represent the user’s voice.

The Apache project went as far as proposing a patch on the Web Server level to ignore the “Do Not Track” header, arguing:

The standard quite clearly states that it must be the result of an explicit user choice, not that of the browser vendor or a mega corp pushing their own Agendas. Being included as part of the “Express settings” makes it the OS providers choice, not the users – if there was a stand-alone screen with that as the only question with no default option selected, than that would classify as a user choice – it’s not, so IE 10 is ignored and further dilutes the meaning of DNT for everyone else.

And today, my company, Krux, adds itself to the list of companies expressly speaking out against Microsoft’s choice.

At Krux, we are big supporters of the “Do Not Track” initiative.  We were among the first in the industry to properly support Do Not Track (and Open Sourced the code so others could do so easily as well); we integrate with the US IAB the European YourPrivacyChoice; and we offer a simple OptOut page, all to protect your privacy and capture your personalization preference. We do this because we want to offer you the content you want, to make your experience better.

But that’s also the important part of this personalization; it is your choice.  We believe that, unless the signal comes directly from a user, any default expressed on the users behalf (be that OptOut OR OptIn) does more harm than good for the consumer experience and the industry as a whole.

Although we have no doubt Microsoft’s intentions regarding user data privacy are good, its execution leaves much to be desired. By unilaterally making such strong minded decisions on behalf of its users, they limit user choice, user experience, and user education; this undermines the effort of an entire ecosystem trying to come together and offer a standard, data safe, and consumer-centric solution to personalized content.

We sincerely hope Microsoft will rejoin the “Do Not Track” discussion, and will work with the web and advertising industries to raise awareness, educate, and improve the web experience for everyone – even those not using Internet Explorer.

As for Krux? We will also be ignoring the “Do Not Track” header if it comes from IE 10, and we have updated mod_cookietrack to give you the same option if you so choose.

In the meantime, we will continue to educate, raise awareness and provide thought leadership in the conversation around personalization and privacy with both you and our colleagues in the industry.

* Until Do Not Track, the only options for consumers to opt out of tracking were only available for advertising related content. Through the Interactive Advertising Bureau (US), Your Online Choices (EU) or the Network Advertising Initiative (Member based), you can register your choice to not be targeted by advertising. However, that preference only applies to that geographic region, or the relevant membership. For any other targeted content, the content provider may offer an Opt Out page, but even then you’d have to find and explicitly Opt Out of every site you visit.

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