The Ghostery in the machine: Tracking the trackers

Ghostery says it's better to know who's tracking you across the Web than to simply block everyone. What do you think?

It’s been a lively few days here at TY4NS, arguing about Web tracking and the premature death of the allegedly free Internet. And there’s more to come. But I wanted to give Ghostery a chance to respond to my posts and correct some things I got wrong.

First the corrections. In “Will Do Not Track kill the ‘free’ Internet?” I wrote the following about Ghostery's database of Web tracking companies:

I would argue that we don’t really know what these nearly 800 Web tracking companies know about us, because the only source we have for that information is the companies themselves. So their argument really comes down to two words: Trust us.

That’s not entirely correct. The data that fuels Ghostery comes from a panel of some 300,000-odd anonymous users of GhostRank, which feeds Ghostery information about the types of cookies each Web tracker deposits on their hard drives. “Trust us” still applies to what these 800 companies do with that information, however. (More on that in a future post.)

I also shorted Ghostery on the number of users who’ve downloaded it – more than 5 million, not 2 million as I originally wrote. TY4NS apologizes for the errors.

Andy Kahl, senior product manager at Ghostery, had this to say in response to my piece comparing his product to Abine’s Do Not Track Plus. I post it here in its entirety.

At Ghostery, we take the compact that the millions of Ghostery users have developed with us very seriously. Personally, I feel that we should all be on the same team here – looking for ways to help educated users and promote a safe and transparent Web. Of the more than 5 million people who have downloaded Ghostery, over 300 thousand of those users participate in a voluntary panel through Ghostery, sharing anonymous data which supports Ghostery development by identifying the behaviors of the 800+ trackers in the Ghostery index, and identifying new ones. So, I would like to comment on and clarify two points raised by this article.

1. Ghostery has ties to the advertising industry, which makes it somehow compromised or sketchy.  

Ghostery does, in fact, have ties to the advertising industry via service relationships for privacy technology. Ghostery makes no attempts to hide this. Millions of consumers, as well as federal regulators, embrace the idea of using a privacy extension to help police the industry that makes a privacy extension useful in the first place. Ghostery didn’t invent the market that Abine entered when they bought TACO [Targeting Advertising Cookie Opt-Out – editor]. Ghostery made it functional for consumers as well as businesses concerned with their consumer relationships. Perhaps most importantly, Ghostery’s reasonable and respected voice means that consumer privacy advocates, federal regulators, and the advertising industry are all willing to engage with it, which is why you see great stuff happen like the recent response from GoDaddy, which published its own latency-improving results, which were driven by Ghostery. 

2. Ghostery doesn't block by default.

As part of its mission, Ghostery believes that increased transparency and education are fundamentally important aspects of user privacy. So does the US Federal Trade Commission. While blocking is another important aspect, we believe it should not be given primary consideration at the expense of enabling transparency and education. It's not difficult to block anything or everything in Ghostery if anyone chooses to do so. Ghostery is committed to making sure consumers know what they are doing when they make that choice. Blocking can have unintended consequences, so a block-all tool is forced to limit their inclusion of functional trackers (comment forms, video players, etc.) or break a user’s Web experience. Ghostery recognizes that every person’s tolerance is different, and enables individual users to set the scales.

In the little more than two years since its inception, Ghostery has done more to educate consumers about online privacy than perhaps any other company. The thousands of consumers who download it every day all share a certain pride in the understanding and protection it provides – that “a-ha” moment when it’s suddenly clear what’s going on behind the browser, and the relief that comes with complete control of their Web experience.

And now a few responses to Ghostery’s response.

Readers should keep in mind that Evidon, which purchased Ghostery in January 2010 when the company was still called The Better Advertising Project, has a vested interest in industry self-regulation of online tracking. Evidon believes if consumers know what information is being gathered about them and by whom, it will alleviate their fears about tracking. Evidon sells its data services and compliance tools to the Web tracking industry.

Thus a blunt instrument like Abine's DNT+ that simply blocks tracking outright doesn’t serve Evidon’s interests. And if Web tracking got legislated out of existence (highly unlikely in my opinion), Evidon would go down with it.

When Kahl talks about Ghostery improving Web latency, he means that Web sites use GhostRank stats to identify elements that slow down page loads, then fix them. It doesn’t mean that using Ghostery on your computer will make pages load more quickly.

Re the FTC: While I’m sure everyone at the federal level can get behind more transparency and education about tracking, it doesn’t mean the FTC uniformly favors industry self regulation over other forms of government oversight. Some commissioners do, some don’t.

And while tools like DNT+ can mess up some Web pages, it’s easy enough to turn it off for a particular site. Easier, in fact, than turning on the blocking features of Ghostery.

Finally, I love the line about having “complete control” of my Web experience. Wouldn’t that be nice? Ain’t hardly true, though, in any number of ways.

Stay tuned for part four of this series later this week.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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