Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz around browsing privacy on the internet. People have been developing ways to mask their internet visits, protecting their browsers from bits of data that sites drop on them to track where they’re going and what they’re looking at.

The practice is called “do-not-track”, and it’s a way to prevent sites from setting cookies on users machines’ to be used in ad targeting. Do-not-track is being enabled by default in browsers (Mozilla Announcement) and around various other identity masking tools (Mask your browser – Lifehacker) being used to defeat advertising targeting. The creators and proponents of these tools are touting increased privacy for users as their primary benefit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for increased privacy whenever and where ever possible, its just, there’s just one thing these people are forgetting.

We all want better targeted ads.

Websites have to have ads. That’s the indisputable bottom line of doing business on the internet and for the most part the data cookies send to sites and that those sites send to advertisers is anonymous, rendering privacy concerns less relevant. The thing is, online services that provide utility to consumers without charging fees need to make money and advertising is the best way to do this for all parties concerned. Some people say they’d be willing to pay for the sites they use most to be ad free (Sometimes Its Worth It To Pay). That’s all well and good but what about all the long-tail sites and services we all use everyday? Until we arrive at some ubiquitous and fluid micro-transaction system allowing us to pay very small amounts for content and things we use without really even thinking about it, that’s not really going to be possible and those sites and services still need to make money so they still need to keep serving up ads to pay the bills.


Remember 10 years ago when you’d go to a website and see ads for pet grooming products, hair loss treatments, Hawaiian vacations and car insurance all on the same page even though you weren’t remotely interested in any of them? Back before Facebook knew what you liked and Google knew what you searched for, ads sucked way, way harder. Now I see ads for adventure races, bikes, and concerts coming up in my city and that’s all stuff I’d probably want to know about anyway. If I have to see ads I want them to be for things I’d probably be into, not for random junk I don’t need or want.


Not to mention that do-not-follow technologies can also disrupt web-analytics platforms like the ubiquitous Google Analytics. Do you remember what websites looked like 10 years ago? Websites have evolved to become better designed and more user friendly in large part thanks to the data about user behaviour that these platforms have tracked and helped analyze. Sure, analytics platforms help businesses make more money, but they do so by helping them make their sites better for users, which in turn makes them more money. This is a win for everybody. The thought of a web that can’t continue to evolve and improve thanks to analysis and understanding of its users behaviour doesn’t sound very much like the web at all.

What it comes down to is that do-not-follow isn’t a bad thing, its a reasonably intentioned technology that has some practical applications, its just that you probably don’t really want to use it the majority of the time and I personally don’t think it should be enabled by default as most people would never turn it off not knowing what was at stake. Until the halcyon days of micro-transactions for all, ads are here to stay, so why not have them be for stuff you might actually want?

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