When the Wall Street Journal ran a series of articles about web tracking called What They Know, it resonated hugely with its readers. In an online poll, about 60% of them said they were alarmed about what is going on behind their browsing experience in terms of online personal data collection. Regardless of the exact validity of this survey, it can be read as yet another sign of how sensitive people are becoming to all sorts of privacy intrusion as the Internet, in particular online advertising, is powered by increasingly sophisticated data collection and distribution systems. Until now, it has been mostly government regulators and privacy watchdogs who showed the greatest concern, but as consumers are joining this hot debate, the industry is under growing pressure to become more transparent and principled.
The biggest problem at the moment is the fact that surfers do not know enough about the processes they are being put through and what is being done with their data. The industry has been developing at such a blistering pace, in a way assuming that its new solutions will be accepted by everyone, that consumers have been left behind. Despite being exposed to them on a daily basis, they understand very little about such practices as online tracking, data collection, storage, retention and distribution as well as behavioral advertising.
When browsing pages, few individuals realize that websites they visit, as well as third parties, place on their computers pieces of software whose job is to trail and map their activity. They make it possible to collect information which can be processed in an effort to build a person’s profile, which is later used to customize advertising or content to their demographic or other characteristics. It can also be sold to other service providers, like data exchangers or advertising networks.
There are ways to block this transfer of personal information, but relatively few surfers bother. Most browsers allow to block cookies, including third-party cookies as well as turn on a feature called private browsing, which limits storage of your browsing history. You can also disable Flash cookies at Adobe Flash Settings Manager website. In fact, you can entirely opt out from being tracked and receiving targeted ads using such tools as the one available from the website of the Network Advertising Initiative, an association that brings together key players in the industry. Obviously, you cannot opt out from receiving online ads altogether; they are going to be generated using poorer data.
More privacy features are abound to follow. One source is government regulation, if the industry fails to come up with its own code of conduct and consumer education programs that satisfy the authorities and privacy advocates. Both U.S. government (do-not-track proposal) and European institutions are investigating options. More likely, companies benefiting from the online advertising ecosystem are going to self-regulate in an effort to assuage fears and curb malpractice. Early signs of this happening can be seen in plans to create the Open Data Partnership, the first one-stop-shop where consumers could see / disable / correct information about them that has been collected, and the attempts to technologically decouple advertising revenue from the most controversial data collection vehicle – third-party cookies.