'Do-not-track' legislation: Do we really need it? Jeff Jarvis answers your questions

May 11, 2011

"Do-Not-Track" legislation was introduced to the Senate yesterday by Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), which would give consumers the ability to prevent Internet companies from tracking their online activity.

What does that mean for consumers and Internet companies alike? Jeff Jarvis will be online Wednesday, May 11 at 2 p.m. ET, to chat about why we don't need to fear Google and other Internet companies.

Have a question about your privacy or the bill? Ask now.

Hi, all,

I'm ready to talk about do-not-track. I am opposed to it for straightforward reasons:

* We already have the means to restrict tracking -- far better than in other media, by the way. 

* Do not track could be injurious, even deadly to media. It will force some behind pay walls and kill more media and  hurt us all.

* It is an indication of internet bigotry. Believe me, magazine companies and database companies exchange much data about you. Why is Congress going after the internet, I ask. 

Dr. Jarvis, I am worried that Facebook tracks what I "like", the Washington Post can track what I'm interested in, and none of these are particularly upfront in what they do and who they sell this information to. Personally, I think this information is personal and private, and no one has the right to this information. Perhaps more importantly, agencies like the FBI have been known to misuse their powers, and if Google or another company can be subpoenaed, it seems to me that there is a lot of information that could (and probably has) been abused. But since this forum says your opinion is "we don't need to fear Google" and other companies, I will look forward to hearing why you think this is not something we should worry about.

You are jumping to some conclusions. 

Most cookies are anonymous. The cookie -- many of which expire -- remembers what page and ad you 've seen so you won't be served the same ad too often and so content can be targeted to you. 

You can turn off and erase cookies or operate in incognito windows on browsers. 

As for Google: If it became an agent of spying on you, what do you think that would do to its reputation and brand? In Germany, Google stood up to the goverment when officials wanted to use Google data to track citizens. Google threatened to pull Gmail out of the country. 

Why should I not oppose this legislation. I do not want to be tracked or otherwise known to market researchers.

Simple, then: turn off cookies. Done. No need for legislation. 

This issue seems like yet another attempt by companies and/or governments to track us. Even Federal ID cards had tracking chips initially (HSPD12) - they could have literally tracked employees time in the cafe or bathroom! Fortunately that was found out early and disabled! How many other things we carry each day have some sort of GPS or other tracking chips? Cell phones? Credit cards? Cars with black boxes?

Cookies have good uses: They help sites target content, services, and advertising to you. They remember passwords if you like so you need not sign in every damned time. 

Tracking enables sites to maximize ad revenue. Without that, you are less valuable to them and they will be able to afford less content. 

No free lunches. 

Cell phones? Apple was wrong not to let us know it was holding our geo data in our phones and wrong not to give us the tool to erase it. After the hubub, it is fixing that. 

Will creating an opt-out mechanism for end users be as destructive as a do-not-track bill would be in the first place? I imagine 70% of users opting-out and crushing ad revenue.

Yes, we have to ask ourselves why we would opt-out. If we all opted out of the Washington Post site's tracking, the Washington Post would be able to serve only cheap remnant ads (perhaps 50 cents per thousand views vs. $10 or even $10). The Post would not be able to afford to continue serving us online. It might go behind a pay wall but that will not bring in enough money. The paper is dying. Perhaps the entire Post would die. There are consequences, indeed. 

If the dialogue was that the government supports this tracking by electronic devices to keep tabs on its citizens all hell would break loose. However, the public is lulled into acceptance that everything that I buy, eat, travel, walk, is dumped and then sold to the highest bidder. What happens when that bidder is the person or country or terrorist ready to buy information on every CIA, FBI, and other government employee? When did everything that I do be come a commodity to be gathered and sold to anyone and everyone. If the government was doing this the public would be screaming invasion of privacy and big brother. What's the difference?

Long, long before the internet, data bases held information on you. Magazines, newspapers, consumer products, credit cards, many companies both bought and sold such data. I can go to Acxiom today and buy names and addresses for, say, single women in their 20s with college educations and income over a certain amount who rent their homes within N miles of an address. That has *nothing* to do with the internet. It existed *before* the internet. The internet is not the enemy. It is being positioned as the enemy because (a) legacy companies fear its disruption and (b) politicians also fear its disruption and also enjoy an easy target. What we need to control is not the gathering of information -- else we will tell people what they can't know after they already know it -- but instead the use of information by governments or companies -- no matter the medium. 

When I worked at the FDA library, it was a major cost. Would older expensive sources work to protect their investments by making it more difficult for new methods to collect the same information?

I think that's likely, yes. 

Solution to revenue loss caused by "do-not track" for firms is likely to be creating two subscription options for consumers: a free (or cheaper) option in exchange for permission to track their behavior and a more expensive subscription option with no tracking. Do you think then this legislation will result in the lower income portions of the population to be exploited more and to have less privacy?

Interesting point. Do not track will make information more expensive. It will cause pay walls to be erected. That will exclude people from information they can get now free. It will kills media outlets and give us less information. 

Beware the unintended consequences. 

Do you think that there is a relationship between advertising and the political bias that the newspapers have? In other words, do you think news media is trying to appeal to certain advertisers and lifestyles that they think is relevant to the political bias they represent?

No, not really. 

Many websites do not work without you installing cookies. That is often not an option, as it seems.

If I ran a website, I wouldn't make it an option. No free lunch. If I can't serve ads to you and pay for bringing reporting and content to you, then I'm not sure you have a right to see my information. That's the logic of the pay wall, eh? Why not instead of a free requirement for use?

Would you please explain some of the basics of how Google tracks us and how they use this data?

Not just Google but most sites and advertisers use cookies to do a number of things: to count users and see how often they visit (important to manage and improve sites); to prevent you from seeing ads too much; to target ads; to target content; to remember your password so you don't have to sign in to sites that require them over and over .... The cookies are usually anonymous (except on sites that require registration,  like the NYT and WSJ). With targeting, advertising is more effective and media sites can charge more for it. 

Is Google friend or foe?

Depends on whether you are Apple, Facebook, or Microsoft. 

The world economic forum said in the report Personal Data "In practical terms, a person's data would be equivalent to their "money." It would reside in an account where it would be controlled, managed, exchanged and accounted for just like personal banking services operate today. These services would be interoperable so that the data could be exchanged with other institutions and individuals globally. A do not track legislation will favor this. What do you think about it ?

Oh that sounds cool. But I don't see how it is practical. 

What is "my information." Look at Twitter: A researcher found that the chatter about movies there can be as much as 97% accurate in predicting the success of a movie at the weekend box office. So my little tweet about seeing a movie has value. Together all our tweets have more value. Who owns that? Who should? 

Yes, I think that my information and my creations (photos, emails, etc.) should be under my control and portable so I can take it elsewhere, for example. That is why Google has its Data Liberation Front, to make sure we can. 

But beyond that, when we share our information and all gain because we've shared it together, ownership and control becomes very complicated. 

If I do not turn off cookies, what exactly happens? How long will these cookies remain, how are they used, are more current ones more influential or does it look at an overall look of what sites I ahve been on, or what? How do cookies do what they do?

Go to your browser preferences. You can kill all your cookies. In Google Chrome you can open an "incognito" session in which no cookies will be stored at all. But I'll bet you'll find it inconvenient (it will not pre-fill addresses for you any longer; you'll have to repeat passwords for the NYT at every visit). And you have made an ethical choice: You have made yourself less valuable to the site that is giving you content for free. Why when there is no harm to you? Just because you can? You can leave a restaurant without tipping the waitress. Should you?

Your stance is that the media would not exist without the revenue from tracking. That is not true. Media is simply dying from inability to make people pay for content, and relying too much on advertising. You need to understand that the customer will pay either way. Firm have the ability to price customers (higher) based on their preferences and your history. That happened with Amazon in the past. I would rather have the customers pay for content. And make them expect to pay for quality content.

You can wish all you want but those economics are simply not sustainable for many reasons. First, it costs a lot of money to get people to pay in marketing. Second, there will always be free competitors, leaving you at a deadly disadvantage. Third, readers have *never* paid for the cost of content; a Condé Nast magazine loses a great deal of money on you when you subscribe; it makes money on you only because of the advertising. Simple, hard, economic reality. 

You say opt-out would be bad. Could you please explain how that is fundamentally different from disabling cookies, which you say is OK? If we all disabled, cookies, doesn't that have the same effect as opt-out? Why is disabling ok and opt-out not?

Put it this way: If the default becomes not to be tracked, then the economics of media will collapse. The default now is opt-in with plenty of means to erase and stop cookies (without the need for legislation). I see nothing wrong with that. What's wrong with how things work today? Where's the actual harm? 

Do people, as a whole, have a right to privacy? Not just on the internet, but in general? Is there any part of your personal life that you would like to stay private? The answer is obviously yes.

Of course, we have a right to privacy ... though there was not a serious discussion of such a legal right in the U.S. until 1890. That came because of the invention of the Kodak camera and fears about what could happen with a new technology. Sound familiar?

I will argue in my book, Public Parts, that we must also be mindful of the many benefits of publicness as we each decide -- as individuals, companies, governments -- what to share and what not to share. 

I have found great benefit in living publicly, even talking about my malfunctioning penis (I had prostate cancer). 

But not everything in my life is or should be private (in create measure because it's too banal). 

Sharing is a matter of genosity. I'd rather start this discussion there than in fear. 

No one wants to be tracked but everyone wants the benefits of the products and services that companies that track us offer. No one is forced to use a cell phone or sign up for facebook or to conduct a search on google. If you don't like companies tracking you, don't use their products and services. Why is that so hard to understand?

Amen. 

Its one thing to argue that this hurts peoples ability to make money, however facebook et al have repeatedly shown they don't care about our privacy our security. If you are going to track people the utmost care needs to be given to protecting the information, and since its sold off to anyone, they have not proven they can do this. Why on earth should people trust that these companies can change to take this threat seriously? They failed at securing our personal information, this is the results.

On what basis do you say flatly that Facebook doesn't care about your privacy? It has done some clumsy things, I grant, and has had to learn the hard way to be more open about its practices and to make its tools easier to use. But I think it is doing that. 

Jeff, you are arguing that do-not-track would result in the erection of pay walls, and therefore make information more expensive. My problem with this point is that pay walls are already being erected. I think we are heading towards a world where these companies take our data as well as our subscription money, anyway, so suggesting pay walls are the consequence of do-not-track is misleading. As to your point about old-media (magazines, etc.) having our data: I think with the Internet we are seeing this become more extreme. Companies can obtain incredibly specific information about our likes, wants, tastes, etc. When the price of information is our privacy, isn't that a price too high?

First, pay walls are not working. 

Second, show me the evidence that this is worse. Much of the information in cookies is held without personally identifiable information while all the information in a data base such as Acxiom is held with PII. 

The fact that the business model is based off of a very suspect practice is not my concern. This is something that should have been considered in the race for profits. If companies considered users privacy a little more, then this would not have to occur. Its appears to be the natural result of the failure of self policing.

That's so generalized, I don't even know what to say.

I am curious on your take on the sponsored search results. Google search for example, shifting their advertisers up, or Yelp, giving higher ratings to advertisers. Don't you think that advertising also hurts small organizations and non profits, and overall biases and contaminates information over the web?

Google doesn't do that. It sells ads next to and above search results but does *not* sell placement in the search results. Yahoo used to. Then Google improved on that by using higher standards. 

It's hard to take anyone seriously who actually claims Facebook gives a darn about its users privacy. In other news Syria also cares about the safety and security of its citizens. There default settings are laughably insecure and they apply almost no review or standards for third party apps. Thats just to start. That was a shameful, almost tobacco esq response from someone who is supposed to be an expert.

Oh, my, what metaphors. Are you next going to accuse Twitter of toxic dumping? Let's have a discussion of the specifics and not such grand and emotional generalities. 

An earlier poster wrote: Re: Facebook Privacy its hard to take anyone seriously who actually claims facebook gives a darn about its users privacy. I have a hard time taking seriously anyone who expects information that they freely post on the internet to be private. If you don't want the world to have access to something about you, don't post it. I don't care what the supposed "privacy settings" are; always assume that something posted online is accessible. Heck, there are old usenet postings of mine from 20 years ago that are still accessible with the right google search. This stuff is not well hidden, and it never dies.

Yes, as soon as you tell one person something, it is public ot that extent. What happens from there is a responsibility that lies with them and your relationship. 

Jeff, pay walls are working - for the Wall Street Journal and FT. For those companies that are struggling, the economics will need to change, and frankly yes, information will cost more. But this is merely how things were before the Internet. Plus, as I contended in my first "pay walls" post, regardless of do-not-track, pay walls will be erected because we have seen that a model of free access cannot be supported merely by online advertising and selling (or whatever they do) user data.

They're not working anywhere else. And I disagree: Information is becoming cheaper and cheaper (and more democratic). The old cost structure of large monopolies cannot be supported now because there is much competition. But my entreprenerial journalism students are finding new ways to start to enterprises very inexpensively and they will distrupt the huge, old players. 

What varies among Apple, Facebook or Microsoft? Sorry, still learning about all of this stuff.

Uh, it was a joke. 

The vast majority of Americans have no understanding of the legal concept of privacy. Everyone thinks that they have privacy and they are in control of what remains private. Where does the Constitution say that exactly? Nowhere! The constitutional concept of personal privacy was created out of whole cloth with Roe v Wade. Yes the 4th Amend. deals with privacy from GOVERNMENTAL search and seizure but says nothing about intrusion from commercial actors. In a nutshell. . .there is no right to privacy. If you put it out there, it is no longer private. The only way to not "put it out there" is to not interact with companies that track your info.

Yes, privacy does not exist as a matter the constitution or Bill of Rights. But it has been found elsewhere and I'd say there is now a well-established legal right to privacy. It does not start with Roe but earlier and has become much broader as time has gone on. 

I understand that newspapers and magazines have always made money on ads not content but the content still has value, right? Yes there may be a free competitor but so what? It's not the Washington Post! People that want professional, well written, insightful, ethical content will pay for it. Interestingly, I think going back to a paper product could be part of the solution in effectively marketing content. Your thoughts?

There's only one way to find out: Charge. I'll bet you a day behind a pay wall it won't work. 

Jeff, I am a marketing researcher so I do work with log data. Yes some cookies may not store name information, but Facebook, Comcast, Apple and other cell phone networks clearly know your name, and your social circle, where you were last night, and a whole a lot more. As the consumers are becoming more sensitive, there will rise competition that provides no tracking or storing of information and some customers will opt for that, leading to revenue loss at any rate.

If it's so awful for people to know where we are why are millions of us doing just that on Foursquare et al?

My publisher would kill me if I didn't plug my upcoming book on privacy and publicness coming out in September. Watch for Public Parts from Simon & Schuster. thanks. 

In This Chat
Jeff Jarvis
JEFF JARVIS, author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins 2009), blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. He is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is consulting editor and a partner at Daylife, a news startup. He writes a new media column for The Guardian and is host of its Media Talk USA podcast. He consults for media companies. Until 2005, he was president and creative director of Advance.net, the online arm of Advance Publications. Prior to that, Jarvis was creator and founding editor of Entertainment Weekly; Sunday editor and associate publisher of the New York Daily News; TV critic for TV Guide and People; a columnist on the San Francisco Examiner; assistant city editor and reporter for the Chicago Tribune; reporter for Chicago Today.
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