Will “do not track” push display advertising back to the dark ages?

The gathering and sharing of consumer data is under increasing scrutiny these days, and the coverage is invoking fears of “Big Brother”.  If you missed it, Wall Street Journal recently ran a series on online tracking and targeting, and this weekend their stirring piece, “The Customer as God“, suggested that the end user will eventually take control of their data and broadcast their needs to be met by the vendor who fits their criteria, from behind a wall of anonymity.


Lost in the hue and cry is the fact that names are not associated with profiles that data aggregators collect (at least by the digital data brokers) and the ultimate, not-so-sinister goal is… drumroll… putting relevant advertising in front of the user.  The user has nothing to fear but their own lack of self-control.  The biggest complaints raised are lack of transparency, lack of consumer’s ability to see and modify the portraits created about them, and use of data in employment, insurance, and financial product applications.

The reality is that data vendors like BlueKai and Acxiom are working so efficiently that Facebook is now seeking to emulate their strategy of aggregating web users’ path across the internet to create richer portraits for advertisers.

Meanwhile, Congress is asking data brokers for more information about their practices and products, and spurred by federal pressure, a new do-not-track button will start appearing on internet browsers, but it isn’t going to stop all Web tracking, and it remains to be seen how the advertising ecosystem will adjust to the new yoke. The idea is to allow folks to opt out of ad customization based on people’s Web browsing habits (which was already becoming standard), and that customer data will not be used for employment, credit, health-care or insurance purposes. Sharing of data for those purposes is what spurred Congress into action.

But use of data gathered will still be allowed for some purposes such as “market research” and “product development” and would still be available to law enforcement.  The data is too valuable to go unused, however, and you can count on the advertising ecosystem to find a way to use consumer data.