Privacy buffs may soon have a reason to calm down a few notches about advertisers and corporations tracking their online moves.
Google and Mozilla recently announced they will bring features to their browsers, Chrome and Firefox, respectively, that should prevent advertisers from collecting private data about users and tracking users’ actions on the Internet.
Google intends to do this through the use of a browser extension for Chrome named “Keep My Opt-Outs,” and Mozilla intends to do this through a planned feature for Firefox.
These features have been revealed ahead of the Federal Trade Commission’s recommendation that users be given the ability to prevent advertisers from recording and tracking their private information, including, but not limited to, websites they visit, purchases they make, searches they conduct and links they click on.
The features announced by Google and Mozilla would work perfectly well in an ideal world. The reason they may not reach their privacy-protecting goal is because they take for granted that advertisers will choose to comply with do-not-track requests sent by the browser.
For advertisers, private data about users is essential in providing targeted advertisements that are more likely to match users’ interests. Targeted advertisements increase chances that users will buy or use what the advertisement is selling or promoting, and not many advertisers will be willing or comfortable to give up private data and user tracking.
Users have had the ability to take similar actions in the past by using tools such as AdBlock Plus, or, for more technologically advanced users, proxies and Tor networks. AdBlock Plus and similar tools, while helping users block advertisements completely and thereby protecting their privacy, have been largely decried by several organizations and individuals.
Advertisements help pay for several popular free services, such as Hulu and Facebook, and generate a source of income for websites, like The New York Times, and blogs. As the use of ad blockers has increased, websites and service providers have been forced to consider making users pay to access their content and services, something that might not be feasible for several users and may not work for several entities, such as news blogs and websites.
Advertisements presented on social networks, such as Facebook, are a primary example of targeted advertisements. Most of these advertisements are targeted using data, such as a user’s “likes,” age, location and educational institution or workplace.
Advertisements on services such as Facebook help college students discover events, like concerts, that may be taking place near them and help them discover services and businesses that may cater to their interests, and some even advertise offers that are valuable to cash-strapped students.
Preventing the publishers of such advertisements from presenting targeted advertisements would result in less relevant and interesting advertisements. An example of this may be an advertisement for an upcoming concert taking place in a city that’s not convenient for you to travel to.
Blocking such advertisements would mean not knowing about events, businesses, services and offers at all, unless somebody chose to tell you or if you read about them or saw them in the news.
Advertisements have existed for a long time and have, throughout their existence, provided a means to boost sales, increase awareness and monetize services. With the increasing interest in and scrutiny of user tracking and user data collection, advertisers are being forced to slowly put an end to such practices or limit them in a manner that is generally deemed acceptable.
While this means advertisements will be less targeted and specific to users’ interests, it also means the advertisers will be forced to innovate and create new means for reaching customers with ads that are both interesting and valuable to them. And, as a strategic communication major, I’m excited to see what the future holds.
Varun Pramanik is a sophomore strategic communication major from Mumbai, India.