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The DNT Default Debate


Last week, the privacy blogosphere (admittedly, a small contingent) blew up with the news that Internet Explorer — which will ship with Windows 8 — will have the Do Not Track (DNT) header system turned on by default.  Although this may sound like a mundane product detail, it actually has significant ramifications.  Competing on privacy protection is a good thing, but making DNT the default may scupper the work being done at the W3C (with broad industry support) to make Do Not Track a reality.  If the coalition of industry support for W3C collapses, then all DNT default decisions will be meaningless, as websites and advertisers will not honor the DNT header.

The W3C has been working for months on a standard for DNT that could be agreed on by a wide swath of affected advertisers, browser makers, privacy advocates, and users.  In this collaborative setting, a technical specification is being hashed out for how the DNT header would be transmitted and what it would look like, and perhaps most importantly, how it would be treated by websites that received it.  There is an honest worry that making DNT the default for users could derail the productive conversations happening at the W3C and in the end harm privacy more than it could possibly help it.  The largest casualty of this would be users’ trust in the information economy.

Based on the work at the W3C, a coalition of advertisers called the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) reached an agreement, working with the White House, to respect the DNT header, as long as the user’s browser did not enable it by default.  The DAA views this decision as undermining that agreement.  A blog post by the Interactive Advertising Bureau explains their rationale.

The collapse of the the W3C and the DAA talks would threaten competition and innovation on the Internet as data driven applications are at the forefront of the latest revolution in online services.  These applications rely on the trust of users in gathering that data. In addition, a default “on” position could harm innovation by making advertising revenue harder to come by, thus discouraging advertising supported business models.

Providing consumers who have significant privacy concerns a trusted option to curtail web tracking can be a good thing.  The more that users understand and feel control over their online environments, whether or not they utilize DNT, the more they come to trust the Internet.  Enhanced trust paves the way for new and exciting business models that rely on personal data to provide users with highly relevant information on their immediate surroundings (such as Foursquare) or to make recommendations based on their history (such as Amazon).

Too much fear mongering exists in the privacy policy arena at the moment, which heightens calls for government regulation that would imperil a free and open Internet.  The era of big data brings big benefits, not just big risks, and a measured cost-benefit analysis is not being clearly articulated to most consumers (and we are not the only ones who feel this way).  If at the end of the day having the default DNT “on” means significant numbers of people unknowingly exempting themselves from business models that provides them cool new products and services for low or no cost, this would certainly be a bad thing.  However, an even worse scenario exists.  If talks collapse and the chattering class fixates on their failure, then privacy fear mongering will escalate and who knows what kinds of regulations we will get.  If I were forced to hazard a guess from recent examples (such as Reps. Markey and Barton’s children’s privacy bill), they probably won’t be good.


Trust in the integrity and security of the Internet and associated products and services is essential to its success as a platform for digital communication and commerce. For this reason we’re committed to upholding and advocating for policymaking that empowers consumers to make informed choices in the marketplace while not impeding new business models.