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A Backlash Against Web Tracking September 20, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms.
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There was a time, at the dawn of the public Web, when by default your browser would ask you every time a site wanted to deposit a cookie on your computer.  The dialog box would typically pop up only once or twice, usually because you asked the site to save your login information.

I’m traveling this week, so I turned on the “prompt” option for third party cookies in IE 8 (I still wanted sites themselves to remember who I was), and went to Delta.com to view my reservations.  On the home page and logging in to my account, I was prompted no less than twenty times for third party cookies, often multiple times for the same cookie.

In short, prompting for third-party cookies made the browser unusable.  There are simply too many of them, and they are too persistent, even when I’m only visiting one or two pages.

Today, the Wall Street Journal followed up its excellent summer series on user tracking with a feature describing a string of lawsuits that are attacking companies that seem to play fast and loose with cookies.

I’m of two minds about this.  A part of me believes that no software should be installed on my computer without my knowing about it (yes, I can turn on prompts for cookies, or block them altogether, but for several reasons that’s an unsatisfactory solution).  And like many people, I believe the less that is known about me, the better.  For example, when I comment on other blogs, I typically use a pseudonym.

On the other hand, we get an awful lot of use out of the Web for free.  Companies are spending millions building Web sites that we get to view and use without paying a penny outside of our access charges.  Granted, online sites get us to buy things, but that’s the primary motivation of tracking, to figure out consumer behavior and hopefully provide us with a better consuming experience.

Of course (the “gripping hand,” for those of you familiar with writer Larry Niven), eventually it becomes possible to do more ominous things with that data in the future.  And it’s not like we’re asked permission first.  The former, in my mind, remains the key.  It’s a very small step from collecting the data to correlating it with unique individuals, enabling all of us to be followed on the Web, in great detail.

A collateral point is that ads and tracking have become such a significant part of the Web payload that they slow down access, and likely cost us in increased access charges.  In effect, they clog the entire Web.

So I see the need to collect user data.  I’d like to see either a central clearinghouse run by an entity with no commercial interest in the data, or iron-clad regulations concerning its use.  Anything less is an invitation to have Big Brother join us on the Web.

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