What’s Next in the ‘Do Not Track’ Ad Debate?

The Western world has a strange relationship with advertising: We really hate it when ads get intrusive on us, and we use every possible method to avoid watching them (DVR, hello), but we also seem to love certain spots (the fact that 54 million people watched that Darth Vader VW ad on YouTube strongly supports this theory).

So we understand on an abstract level why ads are necessary, but we want to watch them on our own terms, and we can’t seem to accept the fact that our favorite programs (and our precious Internet) could never survive without them. We don’t want to pay for our entertainment, but we don’t want to be forced to watch the ads that subsidize it, either. This is obviously a bit of a problem.

Well, based on the ad world’s aggressive response to the ongoing “do not track” browser controversy, we’d say they don’t seem to care too much what we think of them—they just want to get their content in front of as many eyes as possible, and they don’t mind being a little dickish about it.

Here’s the deal as it stands: The “do not track” option on browsers would theoretically allow web surfers to close the portal through which advertisers collect their precious, precious data. Most Americans love that option, because we don’t think that our private travels through the World Wide Web should double as research sessions for whatever companies happen to be interested in tracking us.

Now Microsoft plans to make “do not track” the default setting on the soon-to-be-released Internet Explorer 10. The decision may have had something to do with the fact that a whopping 75% of surveyed customers thought it was a great idea. But wouldn’t you know it—advertising trade groups don’t much care for Microsoft’s habit of serving the people who buy its products.

A rep from the Interactive Advertising Bureau says “If we do away with this relevant advertising, we are going to make the Internet less diverse, less economically successful, and frankly, less interesting”. He may not be too far off–there’s little doubt that widespread adoption of “do not track” would make it more difficult for some retailers to drive revenue online.

The most ridiculous thing about this debate? The particulars of the “do not track” mechanism haven’t even been worked out yet. Advertisers aren’t sure exactly what it will do, but they are terrified. How do we know? The tone-deaf head of the Direct Marketing Association suggested that the solution lies in allowing affected browsers to collect data for advertising purposes–the very thing “do not track” is supposed to prevent. Again, the advertising world is much more concerned with preserving its fragile business model than winning friends.

Where will the debate turn next? Will Microsoft really give in to the ad folks and risk angering its consumer base?

We doubt it. But we do have a feeling this one is going to get rough.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.