Online Privacy Tools Could Wreck the Web’s Economic Model

A widespread interest in online privacy tools—including the Do Not Track (DNT) feature finding its way into Web browsers—could end up undermining the Internet economy.

That’s the suggestion of research firm Ovum, which surveyed 11,000 Internet users in 11 countries and found that 68 percent of them would select a Do Not Track feature if such a thing were easily available. “This hardening of consumer attitudes,” read the firm’s Feb. 6 research note, “coupled with tightening regulation, could diminish personal data supply lines and have a considerable impact on targeted advertising, CRM, big data analytics, and other digital industries.”

The survey also found that only 14 percent of respondents believed Internet companies “are honest about their use of consumers’ personal data.”

Ovum’s note comes just as Google and Microsoft gear up for what looks like another protracted marketing war, with Microsoft accusing its rival of violating users’ email privacy. “Google goes through every single word of personal Gmail messages and uses that information to sell and target ads,” read a note posted on Microsoft’s Website Feb. 6. “Google goes through every single word of personal Gmail messages and uses that information to sell and target ads.”

But Google insists no human employees read messages sent via Gmail. “Advertising keeps Google and many of the websites and services Google offers free of charge,” a Google spokesperson told Bloomberg. “We work hard to make sure that ads are safe, unobtrusive and relevant.” Instead, automated systems scan the emails in order to deliver targeted ads.

A Feb. 6 article in The Wall Street Journal suggested that “Microsoft also has said it shows ads in Outlook.com tailored to the subject lines of emails.” But Microsoft told The Verge that it doesn’t scan the subject lines of emails for better ad targeting.

Given conflicts like that, it’s no wonder Web denizens sometimes feel a little perturbed about the companies running their “free” services. But whatever their feelings, and no matter what sort of FUD missiles the tech companies fire at each other, large portions of the Web really are built on a model that requires personal data in order to fuel targeted advertising—and with the interest in Do Not Track and other privacy measures, that model is potentially at risk.

“Internet companies need a new set of messages to change consumers’ attitudes. These messages must be based on positive direct relationships, engagement with consumers, and the provision of genuine and trustworthy privacy controls,” Mark Little, principal analyst at Ovum, wrote in a statement accompanying that data. “Most importantly, data controllers need a better feel for the approaching disruption to their supply lines, and must invest in tools that help them understand the profile of today’s negatively-minded users—tomorrow’s invisible consumers.”

 

Image: mtkang/Shutterstock.com

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