We live in an age when just about everybody, everywhere, is getting online and becoming more and more connected each year. Social networks keep adding huge numbers of users, e-commerce is showing steady growth with potential for outpacing “traditional” brick-and-mortar sales, and entire businesses are being run solely on the web. The Internet has changed our lives; it’s given us the ability not only to interact socially from anywhere, but also to research, shop, and engage with companies and organizations we may not have ever physically interacted with in “real life.” Everybody knows this.
User tracking is the secret weapon that allows many websites to provide all of their content to users for free.
If I know how many people are visiting my website, as well as what their interests are and their purchasing habits, I’m able to sell advertising space on my website, which helps offset my costs of creating, managing, and hosting the site in the first place. If I know which pages on my website are the most popular, or which blog posts users like to read most, I can then start producing more of that content and less of what they don’t like.
In theory, user tracking is very straightforward, but in practice, it’s more complicated. For example, recently, concerns for the privacy of website users have become a hot topic with everyone, including the United States Congress, trying to figure out how to help protect the sensitive information of Americans on the Internet. There are valid concerns, and it’s worthwhile to ask questions like, “Who is tracking me online, what data are they collecting, and what are they doing with it?” “What if I don’t want that data shared?”
For many years, we had to walk a fine line between using online services we enjoy, for free, and giving up a modicum of personal privacy for the privilege. Facebook is a perfect example: they will give you free access to everything their website (and app) has to offer. In return, they ask for your name, gender, hometown, the movies you like, who all your friends and relatives are, etc. — an advertiser’s dream come true. This data becomes a financial asset to Facebook which, with over 9,000 employees, has to pay for all that overhead somehow.
As someone who has either built, helped build, or manage over 200 websites, I’m sympathetic to the cause of the webmasters and companies who have a web presence. I’m a fan of user tracking because I’ve seen the powerful way it gives website owners a great return on investment and allows for the careful curation of better websites and better content for users to consume. However, as an American, I’m among the majority of those who are fierce fans of liberty and don’t want big brother spying on me any more than you do. It’s a delicate balance.
Some people are quite afraid, and justifiably so, of their personal data ending up in the wrong hands, and have taken a position that the only way to prevent this is to stop user tracking altogether. An entire movement called “Do Not Track” has sprung up, with some adherents suggesting that laws must be created to prevent user tracking. I’m not a fan of the idea, and neither are most of the large tech companies and search engines. There’s a time and place for a discussion on user privacy, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Asking not be tracked while consuming a website’s content is biting the hand that feeds you.
In the same way, if privacy advocates find a way to pass legislation that prevents companies from tracking user data, the net result will be costly for users both in terms of not being able to use websites for free and in raising the cost of products sold online. It’s simple math; if you make it harder for online advertisers and retailers to sell their products and services, it costs them more, and that cost, as with every business under the sun, will be passed on to the end user.
I highly encourage you to start reading the privacy policies of the websites you’re visiting
A lively discussion on what is being tracked, who is doing the tracking and what rights a user may have, knowing that a line has to be drawn somewhere — without punishing the websites that make the Internet great — will certainly help the situation. Knee-jerk reactions are not the answer and a “Do Not Track” blanket won’t help either.
Originally published at the Colorado Springs Independent.