Everyone wants to know what you do online. The Web runs on ads, and the more effectively companies can target those ads, the more money they can make. Who are they targeting? You.
We’ve gotten used to online services and content being free. In exchange, we imagine, we look at ads on the sides of pages and might occasionally buy a product we see advertised there. But how often do we really buy through a banner ad, or even click one? How many of us even have ad-blocking software installed?
The situation is analogous, though not identical, to television. Even our TV watching habits are becoming less anonymous thanks to digital cable and digital video recorders that log what channels we watch when. We tend to think of content as the product, but it’s not. Content providers sell ad space or ad time with the promise that their target audience is watching. That makes us the product.
In response, advertisers have had to get more aggressive in sneaking the right ads in front of our faces. If that means tracking what websites we visit to build a more complete profile of our needs and wants, so be it.
Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google and other advertising companies were exploiting a loophole in the security settings of Apple’s browser, Safari. Microsoft soon said that Google was doing the same with Internet Explorer.
For Google’s part, they said they were just trying to make the “+1” feature of their ads and social network operate properly. The fact that the cookie they placed on users’ machines allowed tracking across many sites was, they claimed, an unintended consequence.
All the major browsers have had some kind of “Do Not Track” preference built in for years, but it’s rarely obvious to the end user how to tweak the settings. It’s usually somewhere like the Tools menu item, under Options and Security, but that can change depending upon browser and version. There’s no law forcing companies to respect those browser preferences either; for now, security experts find Internet Explorer 9’s Do Not Track functionality the most robust, since it actively enforces your preference rather than relying on websites to abide by your wishes.
The White House recently put out its own guidelines for companies to follow when they collect user information. For now, it’s a voluntary code of conduct; the Federal Trade Commission can make sure companies that agree to it truly abide by it, but the hope is that it’s made into law. Broadly speaking, the so-called Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights gives us control over what personal data can be collected, how it’s used and how long it’s kept.
The Web has come a long way since its early days, when simple sites made up of a few static pages were the norm. Now, most large companies have sites driven by databases, and most pages are assembled on the fly based on what you click. The code is long and complex, and relationships with ad networks result in some code showing up on websites that their owners might not even know about. Perhaps they should have more knowledge, but that’s not the Web we have to deal with today.
I promise I have no idea where else you go after you visit twitter.com/CitizenjaQ.