Consumer advocates, veteran websurfers, and the just plain paranoid love the idea of a "Do Not Track" list that would make it impossible for advertisers to track where you go on the web and tailor advertising to your surfing habits. The problem is, those same users hate paying for content, and like having free, high-quality ad-supported webpages to look at. The law of unintended consequences could very well rear its ugly head if the tracking of your likes and dislikes is disallowed: an explosion in the amount of advertising needed to be shown to each websurfer to pay for the content they're looking at.
The reason for the potential ad increase is related to a key difference between telemarketing and online advertising. When individual consumers add their names to the Do Not Call Registry, they stop receiving sales phone calls altogether. Web surfers who join the proposed Do Not Track list, however, would still see online ads, just not ads targeted specifically to them. Ad networks argue that, because targeting increases ad prices, each ad seen by those on the list would be cheaper than ads seen by people not on the list. Thus, a Web site probably would have to show more ads to compensate for the loss of revenue from targeted ads.
"The value of advertising on the Internet would drop because you couldn't say, 'This is a finance person. Let me show them a finance ad,'" says Tim Vanderhook, chief executive of Specific Media, one of the largest privately held behaviorally targeted ad networks. "So the only way to make as much money is a) make them pay or b) show them more ads."
So we hate advertising. We hate paying for content. We hate even the minor anonymous invasion of our privacy that tracking websurfing with cookies represents. And we're going to do something about it. But we might soon be remembering the good old days, when we didn't get up every morning and have to explain to the internet who the hell we are again, while we wade through the fourth splash page of ads for stuff we don't need just to see the weather report.