Compliance Management, Privacy

RSA 2013: Titans clash over using do-not-track on an internet that advertising helped build

Privacy executives from the world's top tech and social media companies on Wednesday addressed industry concern over “do-not-track" technology and conveyed a candid message: Data is often the currency paid for “free” online services.

Speaking at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, the chief privacy officers of Mozilla, Microsoft and Facebook, and the senior privacy counsel for Google, gathered for a panel that touched on hot-button issues, such as do-not-track (DNT), mobile privacy, and the transference of user data via third-party applications.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer 10, which was just released for Windows 7, includes a browser upgrade in which DNT is enabled by default. Hotly debated due to its impact on advertisers that rely on data mining, DNT is a privacy functionality now available on all major web browsers, though website owners or advertisers are not bound by any law to honor DNT requests.

Brendon Lynch, CPO of Microsoft, said one challenge facing the industry and consumers is that each browser manufacturer has its own version of DNT. As such, companies must work together to create a standard, he said.

“It hasn't yet been defined on a broad level what a service should do when they receive a do-no-track signal,” Lynch said. “It's going to be confusing for people if there's not a common understanding of what do-not-track means.”

Browser makers should work with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a global group that develops standards for the internet, to help solve this issue, Lynch said.

Keith Enright, senior privacy counsel for Google, reminded the audience that online advertising plays a critical role in providing web-based services.

“I think it's important and easy for everyone to acknowledge that much of the incredible growth of the internet to date has been fueled by advertising,” Enright said. “So many of the products and services that consumers love, that have drawn them to engage with the web, have been funded by advertising, and I think that's going to continue to be true. With that in mind, there is a balancing of interest here.”

Similar to Lynch's point, Enright said the first step in working with advertisers, while ensuring consumer privacy, is creating a DNT standard.

“Until we have an agreed-upon standard of what [DNT] is going to mean, then acknowledging it in some knee-jerk way isn't necessarily going to be consistent with the expectations of consumers,” Enright said.

Behavioral-based advertising is a chief revenue source for many online services, even ones as popular as Facebook. Erin Egan, CPO at Facebook, further expounded on this point when discussing targeted advertisement on the social networking giant.

“The key [feedback] we get from consumers is, ‘Please don't ever charge us for this,'” Egan said. “You're actually saying, ‘Are you going to keep this free for us?”

“Right now, it's important that people get that their information will be used for advertising purposes,” she added. “And that's something we tell users in multiple ways.”  

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