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A New Business Model for the Internet

Posted on: Thursday 7th of June 2012

Microsoft’s decision to set ‘do not track’ as the default option is another game changer in the fast moving world of the control shift.

It does two things.

First, it forces the other browser providers to respond. What will Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Apple Safari do now? Whatever their response, Microsoft is forcing them to grapple publicly with a central control shift theme: should information be a tool in the hands of the individual, or a tool in the hands of people who gather information about individuals?

More specifically, what are browsers for? Is it their job to help individuals access information, or to surreptitiously gather information about individuals’ use of information online? The mere fact browser suppliers are now having to address this issue shows the pace at which the control shift is now moving.

Second, it forces the behavioural targeting advertising industry to respond. Its defence of its practices has been to provide consumers with an option to opt out of receiving ads based on the information that has been gathered about them. Knowing that only a vanishingly small proportion of consumers will bother to make the effort, the industry can then turn round and say “see, consumers have been given freedom of choice and they have chosen overwhelmingy to accept our practices!”.

However, the industry knows damn well that if the default moves from opt out to opt in an even smaller proportion of consumers will bother to opt in. That’s because a vanishingly small proportion of consumers care one way or another about advertising on the internet. It’s not why they go there.

The end of behavioural targeting?

If other browser suppliers now follow Microsoft, the behavioural targeting industry faces nemesis. But there’s far too much money involved for the industry to go quietly. So what will they do?

It’s  important to note that ‘Do Not Track’  doesn’t do what it says on the tin. If you choose a ‘Do Not Track’ option you might naively think you are no longer being tracked. Not true. You are still being tracked, but advertisers are no longer using the data to target you with ads . . . assuming, that is, they decide to respect the ‘Do Not Track’ request. And that decision is voluntary.

One response for industry players therefore, is simply not to respect ‘Do Not Track’ requests – either by flouting voluntary codes or not signing up to them. Quite a few already doing this. If they do it quietly, they might give themselves a lifeline of a year or two, because it takes time for people to find out what they are doing and start making a fuss about it.

Another, more effective way, is to delve deep into the technicalities of these voluntary codes to soften or obviate the impact of ‘Do Not Track’ requests. Again, there are signs this is already happening.

Or they can come out fighting: some are already talking about a newly invented human right – ‘the right to relevance’ – something to replace and deflect from flawed notions of ‘freedom of choice’.

There are other alternatives, however. For the tracking data itself, it’s possible to turn the industry on its head by:

  • making data collection a service to the individual: providing individuals with the data that has been collected about them
  • helping them track and understand their own online behaviours
  • enabling them to decide who they wish to share this information with, for what purposes, under what terms and conditions.

Many new consumer services could be built on these foundations.

The other way to turn the industry on its head is even simpler: by turning ‘targeting’ into ‘expressions of interest’; by giving individuals the tools to say to markets, when they are interested in buying something, ‘hey! Here I am. Right now I’m interested in buying X’.

  • This is a no brainer for advertisers. Currently, on Facebook, for every 10,000 individuals exposed to an ad 9,995 ignore it. As far as advertisers are concerned that’s waste on a massive scale. By shifting from targeting to expressions of interest, advertisers could eliminate vast amounts of waste because now they would know who to talk to, about what, when.
  • It’s a no brainer for internet users, turning an intrusive irritation into a positive service instead – plus the added psychological benefit of a sense of control.
  • And it’s a no brainer for website publishers who, instead of alienating their users by invading their privacy, can start offering them useful services instead.

The behavioural targeting industry is already threatening Armageddon in the wake of Microsoft’s move. Without advertising the internet will die, they declare. The fact is however, the only people who really benefit from behavioural targeting is behavioural targeting companies themselves. The rest of us – individuals, advertisers, and publishers of web sites – would all benefit much more from an expressions of interest model which puts the individual in control (and which really does provide ‘a right to relevance’).

You can bet your cotton socks that even before Microsoft made its move some entrepreneurs were already exploring the ‘expressions of interest’ model. Now they’ll be redoubling their efforts. Deliberately or otherwise, Microsoft is helping to usher in a new business model for the internet.

Alan Mitchell