Sunday, 7 October 2012

A Post-"Do No Track" Dystopia?

I remember reading a short story published in a collection of futures that become possible or enabled by the rise of mobile technology. The collection was entitled "Future Histories" edited by Stephen McClelland (link to Amazon) and was produced in part by Nokia.

UPDATE 12 October 2012: The short story is called Glass Earth Inc., by Stephen Baxter appearing in the above collection. See new posting.

NOTE: I have the book, but not to hand - probably in my archive (or in work) so please forgive the missing reference to the particular story in the book - I will correct this as soon as I lay my hands on it.

The story went something like this: in the future advertisers became some omni-powerful that everyone had a quota of advertisements they each had to read or view every day. Interestingly the story had a side plot where McDonalds build a giant Golden-M across the River Thames, presumably next to the then less famous Tower Bridge - something that everyone vehemently protested against until it was agreed that its presence would reduce everyone's daily advertisement quota by a certain amount. I guess that's what you'd call a value proposition...

"Do Not Track" [1] is a proposed W3C standard for adding a header to the ubiquitous HTTP protocol that would instruct servers (specifically first and third parties in the DNT Combined Proposal [2]). While there are many arguments for and against, DNT represents an interesting foray into providing the user with more control over how they are tracked when interacting with internet based services.

Let's for a moment imagine that DNT becomes a standard and browsers and other software implement the functionality and let's also say that compliance becomes enforced by law what unintended consequences could entail?

Since the World Privacy Laws of 2013 all browsing was anonymised, even to the point that details semantic analysis to reveal the user was no-longer possible. Indeed this had triggered some of the deepest research and insights into semiotics, semantics and information theory and its application into everyday life as revolutionary as the original World Wide Web. From the perspective of advertising, today's web was quite unlike the spam filled, intrusive and unstructured advertising mess that so amply characterised the first fifteen or so years of the 2000s.

Initially there was a backlash amongst the advertisers and near war between them, the privacy evangelists and the technology providers. The outcry and resultant, hastily passed laws - initially starting in the EU and Canada and (surprisingly) rapidly spreading to the USA enforced anti-tracking compliance. By mid 2014 most advertisers had given up and the once mighty Google and Facebook struggling with a need to find a new business model.

This new anonymity for users proved to something of a new freedom for users but left much of the commercial side of the internet stagnating. Out of this emerged a compromise: a centralised advertising proxy run by a newly formed company with much experience in this area - GoogleBook - who would guarantee anonymity from the producers and advertisers at the expense of each individual being required not just to view a certain amount of advertisements but to interact with them to ensure that the advertisement had actually been read. A person's quota would become the new currency of the internet and be based upon your social network, your willingness to promote products and ultimately to purchases.

Because of the necessity for personal anonymity, the specific details of the mechanisms of how this worked were somewhat confidential. That didn't seem to overly concern users, nor the privacy advocates, nor the advertisers - everyone got their share - for privacy's sake...

* * *

As John sat down at his office computer that morning. London was never easy in the mornings, but a 45 minute trip on the tube gained him 45 advertisement credits - a bargain.

With 200 advertisement credits left for the day, including the deduction for the London-McDonalds Bonus. The arch across the Thames was hideous, but 100 credits deducted from the normal daily tally was worth it. Some even said that next year's proposed Coca-Cola's branding of Tower Bridge might even bring another 100 credits deduction!

It varied, but 200 credits usually meant an hour or so of viewing and interacting with advertisements. Hell, he might just have to make that purchase of a computing device from AppleAmazon Corp: a great offer this month tempted him with its bundled 2000 advertisement credits that would buy him almost a whole day without having to go through this daily routine. Funny how one remembers the days when people complained about Amazon's tablets with targeting advertising on the screen saver...oh those halcyon days of 2012...

It was an inevitable part of the anonymous internet for forced advertisement consumption via some centralised proxy, or whatever they were - part search engine, part advertiser, part social network.

That always bothered him to a point - most didn't really care - but they always seemed to know what advertisements to show him...a little too good given that the rest of the internet was anonymous; then again they were the only provider of advertisements now. Maybe that's why here was here, despite his job seemingly almost futile now.

The computer played the advertisements and almost subconsciously he clicked each strategically to demonstrate that he had sufficiently read the contents - it took him a while to acquire the skill to do that well enough to fool the system but once gained it freed him to perform some degree of multitasking.

A new breed of advertisements were coming - multiply, cross-referenced adverts that demanded your understanding too.

He used a pen and paper, his little eccentricity...he toyed with writing the line: "in a hole in the ground lived...", instead he penned the title:

Globally Targeted Advertisement Tracking Preference Expression (DNT)
W3C Working Draft 07 October 2018


[1] Tracking Preference Expression (DNT). W3C Working Draft 2 October 2012, Eds: Roy Fielding, David Singer
[2] Do Not Track - Combined Proposal, Eds: Aleecia McDonald, 12 June 2012

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