Irony in the Tracker Reporting Biz
How Do I Track Thee? Let Me Count the Ways
By Roger L. Kay
In an article out this week, Jennifer Valentino-Devries and Emily Steel, staff writers for the Wall
Street Journal, add fat the already raging fire that the paper has created over the way third parties
monitor and monetize people’s behavior on the Internet. The article is one in a beautifully
researched, stunningly written series called “What They Know.” I recommend it to one and all.
Under the headline “‘Cookies’ Cause Bitter Backlash,” the authors describe the outcry that these
tracking technologies have created as people realize just how intrusive they really are. A number
of lawsuits have been filed over them, and the suits are threatening to blossom into class
It was therefore with some irony that I found on the very page on which “Cookies” ran no fewer
than eight trackers lying in wait. When the series began, I realized that I, like every other browser
(person who browses, not the thing they browse with), am subject to intensive scrutiny, and
although my browsing behavior isn’t particularly interesting, I resent being tracked, grouped,
targeted, and spammed in this extremely one-way, non-consensual fashion.
So, I added Ghostery to my FireFox browser and accepted the main blocking list. Ghostery is
perhaps the best known of several tracker-blocker add-ons. That’s how I knew which trackers
were clinging to the “Cookies” article. They were Bizo, Chartbeat, Doubleclick, Facebook Connect,
MSN Ads, Peer 39, Tynt Tracer, and Fox Audience Network.
Eight is actually a rather large number. Yahoo’s front page has none. Many of the interior pages
on Yahoo have one or two. Yahoo Finance has four. Hmmmm, my personal portfolio seems to
have two, Bluelithium and Doubleclick. Now, who would be interested what stocks I’m watching?
The average from my informal study seems to be about three. So, eight represents a veritable
spies’ nest of unwanted beacons, cookies, and other types. Ghostery derisively calls them “bugs”
and has 297 individual trackers on its blacklist.
The tracking biz gets more interesting when you take into account the other businesses that the
browser companies are in (browser, the thing, not the person). Specifically, those browser firms
also in the ad biz are loath to allow users to cut off the tracker-generated behavioral information
flow, which is vital to targeting ads. Thus, the freedom-of-the-high-seas mentality of the browser
crowd is in direct conflict with the tax-all-traffic view of the advertising authorities. What works best
here for companies like Microsoft (a client) and Google (not a client) is to keep users generally
unaware of the intensity of tracking activity. At Microsoft’s launch last week of the Internet Explorer
(IE) 9 beta, the company’s messaging emphasized characteristics such as speed, convenience,
and good looks, but contained nary a mention of embedded tracker technologies. Big surprise:
the company has related advertising and search businesses that would like to offer rich user data
so as to obtain the highest possible rates. It’s pure economics. The one hand wants what the
Google, obviously, has the same profile.
So, it’s instructive to note how the two giant search-cum-advertizing-cum-browser outfits stack up
on Ghostery-friendliness. A priori, one would expect neither Microsoft nor Google to support the
add-on. FireFox, having no conflict of interest, makes it easy and quick to install. Apple doesn’t
have any obvious interest in general search and advertising. So, one would expect Safari to
support the add-on, particularly with Safari 5.0.1, which turns on extensions.
In fact, IE supports Ghostery, but in only a limited way, blocking solely detected scripts. Ghostery’s
Web site discreetly says “Detection capabilities for third-party tools in IE are limited, thus a subset
of all active trackers will be detected,” which could be interpreted as “your mileage may vary” or
“we’re not fingering Microsoft directly, but they reserve the right to disallow the blocking of certain
Perhaps surprisingly, Google appears to be partially open, and Ghostery on Chrome supports
extensive detection. However, that support is not complete. Ghostery politely says, “Experimental
blocking now supported. As Chrome's resource blocking API is not comprehensive, some scripts
may execute.” You could drive a truck through that warning. But nonetheless, Google appears to
have doffed its hat toward people’s concerns.
Safari does not yet support Ghostery, but Ghostery’s blog indicates such support is forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Apple itself provides an internal solution that takes care of at least some of the
problem. Safari blocks tracking cookies by default. No mention of beacons, Flash cookies or
other types of trackers, and, as usual, Apple declined to comment further.
It is no surprise, really, to find, on the one hand, the editorial side of the Wall Street Journal
earnestly reporting on how extensively we are tracked on the Internet and, on the other, the ad side
of the paper piling even more trackers than normal onto the very page that carries the clarion
warning about trackers. Church and State. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Ghostery itself is funded by GhostRank, an opt-in service for advertisers and networks that “helps
[them] comply with industry standards for the use of data while advertising.” So, while it’s not
exactly the fox guarding the henhouse, online advertisers are paying Ghostery for policing
Shades of gray, anyone?
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