Do Not Track–Right Metaphor, Wrong Idea

Gary Halliwell was joined in constructing this piece by MIT associate professor of comparative media studies Ian Condry.

The proposed “do not track” bill being considered by the Washington lawmakers marks what could be a dramatic turning point in the legislation of the internet. High-profile privacy issues with Google and Facebook in the past year have continued to draw users’ attention.

Privacy concerns will escalate in the coming months and years, leaving millions of internet users to wonder how best to approach the issue. With “do not track” the FTC has fixed on a concept similar to the “do not call” list which was effective in deterring intrusive phone solicitation. But is “do not track” really analogous to “do not call”? No, not at all.

First, let’s back up to 30,000 feet. Put simply, the meaning and purpose of information can only be derived from its social use. Lawmakers’ goal should be to stop abuse, rather than trying to stop sharing of information. To be clear, privacy is enormously important for a safe future for all users of the internet. However, openness and freedom are key factors in innovation, and in promoting the possibilities for doing good through the internet. The challenge ahead is finding a balance.

Consider, for example, public access to our personal phone numbers. If someone we know wants to contact us, perhaps because they have lost their list of contacts (like when we lose our mobile phones) then we probably want our phone number to be publicly available and will welcome the contact, even though we couldn’t predict the need. If, however, a company wants to contact us to lower our credit card interest rate at suppertime, we don’t want to be contacted. The solution is to prevent the unwanted call, rather than to prevent public access of information, hence, the FTC’s do-not-call registry.

This issue comes down to how information is used. The solution to the conflict between privacy and openness hinges less on the type of information, and instead on the ultimate use of said information. In order to be effective, legislation must determine what kinds of actions are permissible, rather than what kinds of information can be shared. The do-not-call registry does just that, allowing solicitation from non-profits and electoral campaigns. At the heart of the current privacy legislation is the sharing of customers’ personal information, but one of the essential aspects of the social internet, and of ourselves as social beings, is that we not only like to share but we derive good out of it, even benefit from it. “Do not track” fails to take this into account.

Personal information should be shared only with the consumer’s explicit permission. Opt-in is optimal. Facebook’s privacy storm in 2010 centered on a new site design that created confusion and uncertainty for users, regarding how their private information would be shared with Facebook’s partners and advertisers. Faced with the ire of user feedback and complaints, Facebook changed course and fixed the issue. Notably, the site’s user growth continued unabated throughout the year. The other high profile case was Google’s bungled release of its Buzz social network which shared content to every Gmail contact. There were some pretty peeved customers with nightmare scenarios of ex-husbands and stalkers having access to private photos, putting tarnish on the brand.

Google, too, moved to fix this quickly and overall, it is a success story because of its adept use of public information in achieving a remarkable search engine. Through its algorithms that identify relevance based on links (among other things), we have experienced the power of collective tracking, and it has meant a massive improvement compared to the early days of online searching. Moreover, the long trajectory of Facebook illustrates the huge potential that comes from sharing of information. It is fun when we do it with friends, it can deepen and widen our social connections, and it can enhance and nurture the relationships we cultivate on and offline. Facebook shows privacy must be handled with an understanding of social norms, but that sharing (and “tracking” being a form of sharing) is integral to the exciting potentials of social media.

Face-to-face customer relations and social interactions depend on “tracking.” When a person walks into a shop, the store salesperson can see them, make an estimate of their tastes from appearance, behavior and clothing, or the bags they are carrying. It’s an imperfect world, but the sales person tries to understand customer needs in order to best serve them, making assumptions from patterns they see in this client and others. Businesses build an understanding of their demographic from customers coming in the door, day in day out. In the neighborhood, along main street, people are seen and recognized.

In virtual Meta-town, seeing where users have come from, where they might have been (a similarly imperfect picture) and what their interests are is assisted by the information users are happy to sharing: meta-data. Meta are the patterns that help sites customize the experience and allow digital marketers to make a guess at what product users might be interested in and are the key to better targeted advertising, rather than stuff they’re not interested in. None of this involves the disclosure of private and personal information.

It makes sense to give internet users the opportunity to switch off tracking in their browsing habits. However, it is also incumbent on companies to show how the use of the information is ultimately for the good – to show that users will benefit from the kinds of tracking that takes place. Like the shop where the customer feels understood, online companies need to earn the trust of online users, and deliver on a promise to provide a more tailored, relevant experience. Doing this may mean being more explicit and open about goals and ideals. Being able to switch tracking on and off will let users see what the world looks like through the rose tinted spectacles of social connection and meaning.

We appreciate the transformation that occurred with the do-not-call registry, and we welcomed the ability to control unwanted intrusion if we so choose. The issue of privacy online, however, poses a somewhat different range of challenges. Our ability to find information about people and to contact them with offers, services, missions, etc. that might be appealing and welcomed, is as important as limiting the potential negative consequences of our online personas.

As we continue to debate privacy online, our contention is that categories of actions, rather than categories of information, should be the measure of new policies. In some ways, this requires more openness, not less, especially on the part of those companies and services that seek to use private information. Will the information be used for good ends? The definition of “good” will then be the issue. This is a complex one to be sure, but it moves us in the direction of understanding that information is only meaningful in terms of what it will be used for. Indeed, the internet has been the most dramatic example in world history; showing the proposition that sharing is better than hiding behind closed walls.

The opinions expressed by Mr. Halliwell and Mr. Condry are their own.