An old saying has it that half of all advertising budgets are wasted——the trouble is, no one knows which half. In the internet age, at least in theory, this fraction can be much reduced. By watching what people search for, click on and say online, companies can aim "behavioural" ads at those most likely to buy.
In the past couple of weeks a quarrel has illustrated the value to advertisers of such fine-grained information: Should advertisers assume that people are happy to be tracked and sent behavioural ads? Or should they have explicit permission?
In December 2010 America's Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed adding a "do not track" (DNT) option to internet browsers, so that users could tell advertisers that they did not want to be followed. Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari both offer DNT; Google's Chrome is due to do so this year. In February the FTC and Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) agreed that the industry would get cracking on responding to DNT requests.
On May 31st Microsoft set off the row: It said that Internet Explorer 10, the version due to appear with Windows 8, would have DNT as a default.
Advertisers are horrified. Human nature being what it is, most people stick with default settings. Few switch DNT on now, but if tracking is off it will stay off. Bob Liodice, the chief executive of the Association of National Advertisers，says consumers will be worse off if the industry cannot collect information about their preferences. People will not get fewer ads, he says. "They'll get less meaningful, less targeted ads."
It is not yet clear how advertisers will respond. Getting a DNT signal does not oblige anyone to stop tracking, although some companies have promised to do so. Unable to tell whether someone really objects to behavioural ads or whether they are sticking with Microsoft's default, some may ignore a DNT signal and press on anyway.
Also unclear is why Microsoft has gone it alone. After all, it has an ad business too, which it says will comply with DNT requests, though it is still working out how. If it is trying to upset Google, which relies almost wholly on advertising, it has chosen an indirect method: There is no guarantee that DNT by default will become the norm. DNT does not seem an obviously huge selling point for windows 8——though the firm has compared some of its other products favorably with Google's on that count before. Brendon Lynch, Microsoft's chief privacy officer, blogged: "we believe consumers should have more control." Could it really be that simple?
同样不清楚的是，微软为何要特立独行。毕竟，微软自己也有广告业务，微软声称自己的广告业务也要遵守"禁止追踪"的要求，尽管微软还在研究如何遵守该要求。如果微软是在试图打击几乎完全依赖广告业务的谷歌，那么它选择了一个非直接的方法：因为无法保证默认"禁止追踪"模式会成为行规。虽然公司以前还拿自己的其他几个产品同谷歌的产品在这方面做过比较，但"禁止追踪"也不像是Windows 8的巨大卖点。微软首席隐私官Brendon Lynch在博客中写到："我们相信用户应该有更多的控制权。"事情真的这么简单吗？