Stephen Foley: Internet advertisers are on the wrong track again

US Outlook: Internet advertisers still don't get it. The industry went to Washington this week and announced it would support putting a "do not track" button at the top of every web browser, its latest ruse to ward off privacy laws. But faster than the pics from the photo op could be uploaded to Twitter, it became clear the industry has a very different view of what "do not track" means than will anyone clicking on their button.

The technology behind the button hasn't actually been invented yet, but it is being written with nice big loopholes all through it. In an Orwellian linguistic twist, clicking "do not track" doesn't mean you won't be tracked. It just means you will only be tracked for "market research" purposes and for "product development".

What would change is that details of an internet user's web history couldn't be so readily collected and used by the giant ad networks, most of which you have never heard of but which have gathered or guessed lots about your likes and dislikes, your age, sex, sexuality and your whereabouts, and which seem to know that I am losing my hair.

These are the networks that decide which ads appear on the page when you look at it, and tailor them specially for you.

Google owns one of these giant ad networks; Yahoo and Microsoft have them, too; so does London-listed WPP; most of the rest are more obscure.

Privacy and data protection campaigners were robust in their criticism of the industry's new position this week, when President Barack Obama joined calls on Capitol Hill for a Privacy Bill of Rights that could be enforced by regulators.

Too many people working in technology sniff at these campaigners and these politicians as ignorant throwbacks.

Tracking is just a pejorative word for remembering, they say, and being able to remember a user's web history is a critical part of how the internet functions; it is how you can be automatically logged into your favourite sites, or can quickly share web articles on Facebook, for example. And wouldn't I rather get served up some hair restoration ideas than a pointless ad for hairspray?

The other claim is that the entire economics of the internet are based on this data mining industry. We pay with our privacy for the privilege of free content from publishers who fund their work with the revenues from targeted ads. The more personalised the ad, the more the advertiser will pay.

I am under no illusions as to the complexity of the technical problem, or the difficulty of marrying the competing demands of privacy, profit and progress.

The trouble is that no one without a Stanford University computer science degree understands who is tracking them and how, how much and what kind of data have been amassed, or where they can go to find out and demand its removal.

Giving us the chance to click "do not track" would hardly scratch the surface of the problem, even if it did what it said on the button.

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