Advertising. It’s always been at the forefront of internet commerce, but now advertisers are tailoring their advertisements through data scraped from the internet’s most popular websites. Massive advertising networks now build comprehensive profiles across a portfolio of websites to guess your location, age, gender, interests, occupation and time spent on major websites.
Mozilla, a non-profit internet organisation best known for their web browser Firefox, points out that websites are able to build a “spider-web” of trackers. In an experiment called Collusion, Mozilla have created a browser add-on that allows you to see in real time just how many third parties are following your Web-based movements.
Searching for movies on IMDB? Your browsing habits are collected by DoubleClick (an advertising subsidiary purchased by Google in 2008 for $3.1 billion), Atdmt and Scorecard Research. Reading news on the New York Times site? Again, DoubleClick will collect your browsing habits. Again, Scorecard Research collects information. And now CheckM8 and IMRWorldwide also add their trackers. Researching your next game purchase on Gamespot? On just your third website visit, three new advertising companies are added. IMRWorldwide, DoubleClick and Scorecard Research have a complete view of your browsing habits across these three completely different websites.
Eli Pariser, a political and internet activist, has identified an interesting effect called the “filter bubble”. Pariser found that internet websites were constantly filtering and selecting what we view, such as in personalized Google results and Facebook. He argues that “we need to make sure that they’re not just keyed to relevance. We need to make sure that they also show us things that are unconformable or challenging or important.”
Fortunately, most internet users can take simple steps to reduce tracking. These include clearing internet cookies and blocking scripts from internet trackers by using browser extensions such as Ghostery. However, advertising networks have become smarter according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit digital rights advocacy group. “Today, online tracking companies use supercookies and fingerprints to follow people who try to delete their cookies,” EFF said. “The leakage of user IDs from social networks and similar sites has often given them an easy way to identify the people they were tracking.” A research project from EFF called Panopticlick scrapes information automatically sent by your browser to websites and compares it to other users’ browsers to identify how unique your browser is. For me, it showed that of the 2,115,818 browsers EFF had tested there is only one with the exact same configuration as mine.
The EFF and US regulators have been pushing for a “Do Not Track” option that allows users to opt out of tracking by sending a signal to advertisers. Last month, the United States’ Federal Trade Commission report suggested advertisers should self-regulate their tracking by allowing opt-outs of advertising tracking.