Early on this week, my lecturer gave me an assignment regarding the web user tracking: the pros and cons and policies that govern it. So I did some literature study, searching here and there, and finally came up with this post. Enjoy!
Do you think a Do Not Track mechanism should be imposed?
Are tracking services helpful, invasive, or necessary evils?
Tracking is a mechanism used by websites, advertisers, and other users to learn the web users’ browsing behavior. This includes every click, every pointer movement, every “Like” or “Dislike”, every “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down”, every keyword used in search, the times when they log in and out, etc. The goal of this mechanism is: better personalization for each web user.
Researches have shown that nowadays, people are drowning in the flood of data. A number of 900,000 blog posts, 50 million tweets, more than 60 million Facebook status updates, and 210 billion emails are sent off into the electronic ether every day. Eric Schmidt likes to point out that if we recorded all human communication from the dawn of time to 2003, it’d take up about 5 billion gigabytes of storage space. Now we’re creating that much data every two days.
With that massive amount of information, our attention is likely to crash. We’re forced to flicker: from text messages to web clip to email to chat client, etc. Thus we lose our focus and miss the important messages/information. We can’t filter out unwanted messages/feeds (or if we can, it’s so difficult that we choose not to do it).
Then came the personalization concept. Personalization is the process of tailoring the presentation of a website’s content to match a specific user’s instructions or preferences. In theory, personalization is developed to help us find the information we need to know and see and hear, the stuffs that really matter for us, and every single thing that fits us perfectly. A golf lover won’t need to search about golf equipments anymore; the manufacturers will find him and give him a perfect offer. An environmental activist will always see what happens with the climate or the forests, and a politician won’t see the unwanted technological news.
It sounds good, but what is the price?
Our data. Our personal information: name, place/date of birth, height, weight, hair color, educational/work history, hobby, interests, everything. Those websites we visit record every single node we make: the time we log in/out, the location we log in from, the pages we open, the search we do, the files we download, the stuffs we rate up/down, etc. And they will use any means if necessary: simple cookies, session IDs, flash cookies, fingerprints, anything.
Another drawback of this personalization is what Eli Pariser calls “The Filter Bubble”. Despite being more and more relevant to our personal interests, the personalized contents put us inside our own bubble. What we see are everything about us. We don’t know what happens outside the bubble. Even worse, those bubbles are created without the users’ knowledge. The users don’t know what part of their information is collected and consequently, they don’t know if they are inside an opaque bubble. A golf player will only see everything about golf wherever he goes. He won’t see anything else. If he wants to, some good deal of effort is needed.
The Do Not Track Policy
To counter this filter bubble, we need to reduce the amount of personalization. To achieve it, we have to suppress the tracking services, a vital mean for personalization. One good example of this effort is the US FTC’s Do Not Track Policy.
In a nutshell, these are what the policy expects:
- Let the users see the data the websites are collecting
- Let the users opt-out of the websites’ ability to collect all or some of that data
- Tell the users how the websites will use the data
- Respect the users’ right to not receive unsolicited communications from the websites
- Give the users a way to choose to receive communications with the websites
Now with all those stuffs explained, what conclusion can we draw?
Personalization is great, just like any other technological invention. But every great thing brings its own drawback. While helping us finding the relevant contents, personalization seals us inside our own bubble, neglecting whatever happens outside it.
To suppress the bubble effect, we have to reduce the tracking activities, the root of this problem. Do Not Track, as proposed by US FTC, thus should come into play. It is important for the users to be able to control what information the websites collect as well as the means of communication.
Regarding the morality of web user tracking, one can say that it’s helpful, somewhat invasive, and necessary evil. To some extent, the result of this mechanism helps us a lot. But frankly speaking, the method used for collecting those data is a form of privacy invasion. Users don’t know if they are being tracked. They don’t know if some complete strangers (e.g. advertisers) know their phone number or home address. Some users don’t even know if there is such thing as web tracking. The evil side of web tracking is clear: it seals us inside the filter bubble, indirectly.
To sum it up, web user tracking is needed, to some extent. Just don’t overdo it.
“Google has become better and better for shopping, worse and worse for researching.” -Anonymous
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
DeMicco, Joe. “What “Do Not Track” Is Really About.” Demicco.com. Demicco, 22 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 Sept. 2011. <http://www.demicco.com/onsite-marketing/what-%E2%80%9Cdo-not-track%E2%80%9D-is-really-about/>.
“Data Use Policy.” Facebook.com. Facebook, 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 16 Sept. 2011. <http://id-id.facebook.com/about/privacy/>.