Get the uncomfortable feeling you’re being followed? It’s not paranoia. Your movements across the Web are being tracked more and more each day, by more companies you’ve never heard of.
Krux Digital, makers of data management platforms for Web publishers, analyzed the top 50 Web publishers in November 2010 and again last December to determine who was tracking users and what kind of information they were collecting. Their findings?
In the space of just one year:
* The number of tracking companies on the most popular sites nearly doubled, from 167 last year to more than 300 this year.
* The average number of “data collection events” (primarily tracking cookies) climbed from 10 to more than 50 per page. That’s a 400 percent increase.
* The amount of data collected by ad networks grew by more than 600 percent.
The biggest culprits behind this tracking are ad networks that not only drop tracking cookies on your hard drive, but also “usher in” other third-party trackers to drop even more cookies. It’s like inviting someone you barely know to a party and they show up with sixteen uninvited guests, who proceed to drink all your booze and eat all the snacks before moving on to the next soiree.
In this metaphor, your data – primarily your browsing history – are the drinks and the snacks. The party crashers are analytics companies, widget makers, ad exchanges, and others who are snarfing up your profile without telling you or the publishers whose sites you’re visiting.
The biggest reason behind this surge in tracking is the rise of Real Time Bidding, says Gordon McLeod, president of Krux. With RTB, computer algorithms determine what ads you see, based on your Web history and how much advertisers are willing to pay for someone who fits a particular profile.
For example, if you’ve spent the last week looking at Web sites for Hawaii vacation rentals, auto insurance rates, and golf shoes, all of these advertisers could be bidding to display you an ad when you dial up CNN.com on Sunday morning. The ad you see would be from the advertiser willing to pay the most for your particular profile, says McLeod.
Real Time Bidding now accounts for a fifth of of the $30 billion+ online ad market, according to Forrester, and is only expected to grow. This is the real reason why every time any one brings up Do Not Track legislation, the ad industry recoils in horror and says, “My God, man, can’t you see what you’re doing? You’re killing the Internets!”
Krux’s mission isn’t to protect consumers, it’s to allow publishers to hoard that data for themselves. Publishers want to be the ones who pocket the extra revenue by capturing your data.
(So much for the argument that targeted ads are necessary to support the “free” Internet. If the publishers who pay to produce that content aren’t sharing in the wealth, those targeted ads aren’t worth a damn to them – or to us.)
Krux allows consumers to opt of its data management platform, and is planning to roll out services that promise to “synchronize what you want Web sites to know about you with what Web sites actually track, making sure your Web experiences become more meaningful, less creepy” (or so the Krux Web site claims). But McLeod couldn’t say exactly when such services might be available.
Of course, Krux has a horse in this race too. The greater the perceived threat to publishers – the more they believe ad networks are sneaking around their backs to ‘steal’ their subscriber data – the more likely those publishers will be to hire Krux and deploy its products. Surveys like this one only help its cause.
For consumers, though, there are two key issues:
1. Your Web histories are being shared by more companies you don’t know Jack about and yet are asked to trust, implicitly, that they won’t de-anonymize this data or use it for things other than to serve ads (like, say, determining your eligibility for insurance, a loan, or a job).
2. This explosion of tracking cookies and the extra server calls they entail is slowing down everyone’s Web experience – a lot.
Of course, not all data collection is evil. Just as some cookies make your browsing experience better by helping the site remember who you are so you don’t have to re-enter your password every time, some data collection is necessary to gauge the effectiveness of ads or allow publishers to personalize sites for you.
McLeod likes to employ the ‘diner’ analogy when talking about ad targeting:
When I walk into my favorite diner for breakfast, I love it when the waitress recognizes me, has my coffee ready, and wants to know if I will have my usual oatmeal. Others would rather not be known as a regular, and they just like to order something different every time. Consumers should be able to clearly understand the practices of the businesses they engage with, easily be able to express their preferences, and have those preferences honored.
Consumers should also be able to order the eggs and bacon and not have to worry about their insurance agent calling them up a few days later and saying, I’m sorry but we’re going to have to raise your rates, your risk of a heart attack just went up 3.2 percent.
That’s the problem with trackers. As consumers, we don’t know who’s doing it, we don’t know what data they’re collecting, and we don’t know how that data will ultimately be used. We just know there’s more and more of them with each passing day.
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