Four reasons why you should worry about online tracking (and advertising isn't one of them)

Pay no attention to the advertisers behind the curtain. The real battle over Do Not Track is bigger and scarier than which ads you're shown online.


As I write this post, the forces of good and evil are sitting face to face in conference rooms on the campus of Apple Inc., trying to hash out an 11th hour compromise on a Do Not Track standard.

I leave it to you to decide which side is the Jedi and which are under the control of the Sith Lords.

This is the final face-to-face meeting for the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group, their last attempt at fulfilling the task the FTC set before them nearly two years ago: figure out a way that allows consumers to keep their online behavior from being recorded by hundreds of companies, without killing the goose that is laying the gold-plated eggs for many Web sites – advertising.

Now you may not care if some anonymous company knows what sites your browser visited. This data is collected anonymously (well, semi-anonymously) and is designed to show you ads you might be more interested in than, say, how to reduce belly fat or get a cut rate loan. Many people, some of them diehard privacy advocates, prefer targeted ads.

I'm here to tell you that this debate is not about advertising. It's about something much bigger and potentially much more profitable. It's about creating profiles of your behavior online and designing algorithms to make decisions about you based on that behavior. It's about gathering that data, mining it, and selling it to the highest bidder, over and over again.

Today that data is used almost exclusively to deliver ads. But how will it be used tomorrow?

1. Oh the prices you'll pay

Variable pricing exists in many forms outside the Internet. Anyone who's booked an airline ticket can tell you prices vary wildly depending on when you buy your seat. Soda pop at the convenience store next to the beach costs more than it does at the supermarket down the street. Bad drivers have to pay more for their auto insurance. Most people understand these things; they're all pretty obvious.

But should you pay more for a hotel room just because you used an Apple device to search for it? You might. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, Mac users who booked hotel rooms on Orbitz paid an average of $20 to $30 a night more than those who visited the site using a Windows PC. They weren't charged more for the same rooms, but they were shown more expensive rooms – which they then booked.

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