It’s called “web tracking” and “behavioural profiling”, but the result is the same. Every search you make, every email, every chat message and every page you visit is combined by e-commerce giants (Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon etc) to create an accurate profile of… you! This is then sold to the advertisers who want to better target you as a consumer.
Here’s two of the most obvious ways one of these giants (Google) perfect their profile of you:
- They automatically record & analyze everything you do with the services they provide to you for “free” – every email you read or write with Gmail, your Google chats, your Google searches, online purchases and so on and
- They record any other websites you visit and what you do in them (where you click, how long you spend in a page etc). This is true of most websites, even those not directly affiliated with Google.
(I don’t want to single out Google as particularly evil - just using them as an example. Facebook does exactly the same - e.g. tracking which NHS pages people read and of course governments across the globe also want to know everything you think)
There is little you can do about #1. I avoid using Google for search, relying on the privacy-conscious DuckDuckGo search engine instead – which promises not to share my searches with Google. I log out of Gmail and Facebook as soon as I’m done using them. I close my browser and delete my cookies. But even if you do all that, they and their partners still know a lot about you.
For #2, there is something you can do. Due to the work of some good people, you have a way of telling them you do not want to be tracked: Enable the “Do Not Track” (DNT) feature of your web browser.
Visit http://donottrack.us/ to check if DNT is enabled in your browser and if not, enable it now – it will only take 2 minutes. As of March 2012 DNT is supported by all major browsers except -unsurprisingly- Google Chrome.
This is where you can enable it in Firefox (on Windows):
Please note that enabling Do Not Track (DNT) does not stop websites from tracking you. It merely indicates that you do not wish to be tracked.
This is important, because it approaches the practice of web tracking from two sides: Technology and policy. Solely relying on technological solutions to supress/evade web tracking could never be fully successful – marketers would always find ways around your techical defenses, while publicly arguing that web users want to be tracked because it provides a better online (purchasing) experience. But DNT has a policy side as well: It allows regulatory bodies like the FTC to nudge marketers to honour the DNT setting. The result is much more effective than a mere technological workaround: If consumers use DNT to clearly indicate “I do not want to be tracked” and the FTC has ruled that marketers must respect this choice (which has not happened as of March 2012), marketers take a lot of risk by ignoring DNT and tracking you. Such behaviour would expose them to lawsuits, fines from the FTC, harm to their brand, public image etc.
Think of DNT as the “Do Not Call” registry for the World Wide Web. By subscribing, you’ve just made DNT stronger and the Web a better place for all.
PS: For the sceptics who worry DNT might kill “free” online services via hurting online advertising revenue, Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society has a good analysis of why this is unlikely to happen here.
PPS: As Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain put it: “If what you are getting online is for free, you are not the customer, you are the product.” You have to decide if you are comfortable being commodisised like this.
PPPS: I recently asked Mozilla’s Tom Lowenthal what good DNT is, if users don’t even know it’s there. Even if they do, how many real people will choose to venture 6 clicks deep in computer-gibberish settings pages to enable DNT? Tom re-stated that the Mozilla people do not want DNT “on” by default, therefore making it an “opt-in” feature, the cost of which should be obvious by the mere existence of this blog post.