When browsing the web, as a consumer, all you need to do is type in a web address, press enter, and you’re off. Within seconds, a website will load before your eyes – nearly anywhere in the world. This technological feat feels like magic, but it’s simply code. Underneath the fanciful features and design of the web is a source code. This carefully crafted language, which can be seen above, enables the web to come alive and be interactive. But it’s also brought about a secret underworld that’s threatening user privacy in the name of profits.
The Gateway To Profits
I established Frugaling.org to have an outlet to write about the struggles of student loan debt, credit cards, making a budget, and much more. In the process, it became clear that this outlet could help me pay off some of my burdensome debt. Slowly, I began with Google AdSense. The AdSense platform is one of the largest ad networks in the digital space. Google partners with advertisers and publishers – taking a handsome cut as an intermediary. By doing so, Google allows average bloggers like me to finance what I love to do: write. Moreover, Google ads offer my viewers highly-related and contextual options that can help them on their journey to zero debt.
Then, I decided to accept private advertising spots and engage in affiliate linking. All of these efforts have been conducted with the hope that my users will benefit from the advertising and support the website in the process. From coupons to credit cards, the offers have been very popular. In order to provide this service and site for free, I’ve chosen to fill the open spaces with ads. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of advertising. If I could get rid of it, I would. But being able to pay off my debt is essential, and funding for an ad-free domain hasn’t been availed to me.
The Free Economy
Once a marketing gimmick, free has emerged as a full-fledged economy. Offering free music proved successful for Radiohead, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and a swarm of other bands on MySpace that grasped the audience-building merits of zero. The fastest-growing parts of the gaming industry are ad-supported casual games online and free-to-try massively multiplayer online games. Virtually everything Google does is free to consumers, from Gmail to Picasa to GOOG-411. – Chris Anderson, Wired
The free economy has led web developers (like me) to a dichotomy: either accept privacy for a price or profit over user data. This is a painful realization, as I for one appreciate a certain level of privacy. By placing ads on my site, I’ve opened a can of worms that’s more potent than the images upon the screen. Much like the rest of the site, the advertising often contains trackers and beacons that monitor user activity. Even though users may not click on the ads, their visit is documented, logged, and stored for varying lengths of time. This process happens largely without explicit consent from the visitor.
Tracking The Trackers
Let me illustrate this point. When you read over this text, scroll the browser page, and choose to click somewhere on the site, around 20 trackers are active. Everyone from Google to Reddit to Twitter is watching your visit. Personally, I think that’s beyond creepy. While I’m hardly alone in advertising products that contain trackers, I can’t help but question the decision. Have we sacrificed everyone’s right to privacy in the name of profits?
Even Google Analytics is beginning to give developers information about their visitors’ demographics and categorical interests. When I realized this was accessible to me, I figured it was time to write about this issue. It feels like too much. While I appreciate the information about my users, this does a disservice to anyone that appreciates privacy, discretion, or informed consent.
Today, I’m writing as a web developer, user, and student. I’m tracked everywhere I go by my phone’s geolocation, my university’s servers log every website I visit, and my website adds to a murky mix of tracking. I’m both at fault for employing these analytics and simultaneously demanding reform – a hypocrite and an alarmist. Both developers and users/consumers must come together to realize how the two can coexist in respectful harmony.
Time To Take Action
What’s the answer and where do we begin? As developers and writers, I think we bear some responsibility for changing these wayward ways. Beginning now, I’m experimenting with new forms of tracking that respect user privacy by anonymizing IP addresses (which can pinpoint your location), deleting logs after certain periods of time, and keeping your information in-house. In the process, I’m evaluating the full-scale phasing out of using tracking technology that is now evolving to capture your age, gender, and interests. But the fundamental question of how I’ll make money remains.
That’s where users’ responsibility begins. In the mean time, users should defend themselves with privacy-enhancing tools like Disconnect.me, Ghostery, and AdBlock Plus. By utilizing these tools, users can block most – if not all – the tracking around the web.
Unfortunately, these are short-term solutions for a larger revenue and funding problem. There’s still a fracture between what users are willing to pay for written content and the privacy they desire. Without governmental oversight or intervention, changing business practices for the sake of users seems impossible. Longer-term, having users pay for content and supporting writers is fundamental to an ad-reduced and/or ad-free environment (without plugins). If we could get to the point where visitors could support writers through donations and private (tracker-free) ad deals, this could provide a solution.