Don’t Track Me, Bro! (The Delicate Balance of Free Content vs “Do Not Track”)

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We live in an age when just about everybody, everywhere, is getting online and becoming more and more connected each year. Social networks keep adding huge numbers of users, e-commerce is showing steady growth with potential for outpacing “traditional” brick-and-mortar sales, and entire businesses are being run solely on the web. The Internet has changed our lives; it’s given us the ability not only to interact socially from anywhere, but also to research, shop, and engage with companies and organizations we may not have ever physically interacted with in “real life.” Everybody knows this.

Something many people don’t know, however, is what’s at work behind the scenes. One of the big reasons that business is so good on the Internet is the incredible amount of data that website owners can collect on their users. User tracking allows webmasters to find out how many people are using their sites, at what time of day, how often, what they’re viewing and more. This crucial data is usually collected in a small snippet of JavaScript that is placed on every page of a website and is stored in a database to be processed and analyzed later.

Why is this practice of user tracking so powerful? It might not seem like such a big deal, but it has allowed website owners, publishers, shopping sites, bloggers, etc., to be able to offer their products and services in the most cost-effective manner possible. User tracking is the secret weapon that allows many websites to provide all of their content to users for free.

If I know how many people are visiting my website, as well as what their interests are and their purchasing habits, I’m able to sell advertising space on my website, which helps offset my costs of creating, managing, and hosting the site in the first place. If I know which pages on my website are the most popular, or which blog posts users like to read most, I can then start producing more of that content and less of what they don’t like.

In theory, user tracking is very straightforward, but in practice, it’s more complicated. For example, recently, concerns for the privacy of website users have become a hot topic with everyone, including the United States Congress, trying to figure out how to help protect the sensitive information of Americans on the Internet. There are valid concerns, and it’s worthwhile to ask questions like, “Who is tracking me online, what data are they collecting, and what are they doing with it?” “What if I don’t want that data shared?”

For many years, we had to walk a fine line between using online services we enjoy, for free, and giving up a modicum of personal privacy for the privilege. Facebook is a perfect example: they will give you free access to everything their website (and app) has to offer. In return, they ask for your name, gender, hometown, the movies you like, who all your friends and relatives are, etc. — an advertiser’s dream come true. This data becomes a financial asset to Facebook which, with over 9,000 employees, has to pay for all that overhead somehow.

As someone who has either built, helped build, or manage over 200 websites, I’m sympathetic to the cause of the webmasters and companies who have a web presence. I’m a fan of user tracking because I’ve seen the powerful way it gives website owners a great return on investment and allows for the careful curation of better websites and better content for users to consume. However, as an American, I’m among the majority of those who are fierce fans of liberty and don’t want big brother spying on me any more than you do. It’s a delicate balance.

Some people are quite afraid, and justifiably so, of their personal data ending up in the wrong hands, and have taken a position that the only way to prevent this is to stop user tracking altogether. An entire movement called “Do Not Track” has sprung up, with some adherents suggesting that laws must be created to prevent user tracking. I’m not a fan of the idea, and neither are most of the large tech companies and search engines. There’s a time and place for a discussion on user privacy, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Here’s a prime example of how insisting that websites not track people does not work: When Microsoft released Internet Explorer 10 a few years ago they added an optional “Do Not Track” feature in the browser’s settings but turned it “on” by default. That default setting turned out to be a very big mistake: Yahoo, Google, Facebook and even the Digital Advertising Alliance decided to completely ignore ALL do not track requests in response, thereby rendering the entire concept ineffective and pointless. Asking not be tracked while consuming a website’s content is biting the hand that feeds you.

In the same way, if privacy advocates find a way to pass legislation that prevents companies from tracking user data, the net result will be costly for users both in terms of not being able to use websites for free and in raising the cost of products sold online. It’s simple math; if you make it harder for online advertisers and retailers to sell their products and services, it costs them more, and that cost, as with every business under the sun, will be passed on to the end user.

If you’re truly concerned about your privacy while using the Internet, I highly encourage you to start reading the privacy policies of the websites you’re visiting and clear your browser’s cache frequently. (Most browsers have a “clear history” option where you can also delete any cookies stored on your computer.) But it’s pointless to complain about user tracking if you’re not even sure what data is collected.

A lively discussion on what is being tracked, who is doing the tracking and what rights a user may have, knowing that a line has to be drawn somewhere — without punishing the websites that make the Internet great — will certainly help the situation. Knee-jerk reactions are not the answer and a “Do Not Track” blanket won’t help either.

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Originally published at the Colorado Springs Independent.


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