The father of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has told the BBC that he is opposed to web activity tracking – to the point where he will switch ISPs if necessary. His comments were prompted by a debate currently going on in the UK over the […]

The father of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has told the BBC that he is opposed to web activity tracking – to the point where he will switch ISPs if necessary. His comments were prompted by a debate currently going on in the UK over the plans of several leading ISPs to hook up with Phorm. Phorm is building a new ad network that gets its targeting information by receiving anonymized browsing information direct from the ISPs – something which has caused a good deal of debate over legality and ethics. (You can read Phorm’s FAQ and some additional Q&A to learn more).

While most of us are probably made at least a little queasy by the notion of our browsing data (in whatever form) being tapped at our ISP by an ad company, I have to wonder whether people’s actions in regards to web privacy are consistent with their public stance that privacy is important. We’ve recently had a number of readers weigh in on what they won’t put on the web; security and privacy are the common limiting factors. But lots of people do put information on the web, in a steady stream: everything from blogs to Twitter contribute to this.

And even if you don’t think you’re sharing information, you may well be. A recent New York Times story reports on an analysis performed by comScore which points out, among other things, that just considering Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, AOL, and MySpace people are subject to a third of a trillion “data transmission events” every month. Those are times when a web page sends whatever it knows about the visitor back to the servers, where it can be stored, aggregated, or used to track people’s online habits.

Of course, there are some ways to avoid “The Ever Watchful Eye of Google.” You can relentlessly block cookies in your web browser. You can do all of your surfing through an anonymous proxy network. But how many people even know about these tactics, let alone use them? While Sir Tim certainly has the technical chops to control what leaves his own computer, I suspect that the average user who thinks their privacy is important has already given away the store.

What about you? Do you worry about who has information to your browsing and clicking habits, or who is making connections between information bits you’ve put online? And if so, do you do anything about it?


Would You Fire Your ISP Over Privacy at GigaOm

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  1. John Dowdell Monday, March 17, 2008

    It’s ironic that the BBC article asks Google’s Doubleclick property to send assets to your IP address. Such cross-site “web beacons” make it easy to track an IP address as you surf across the wide Web.

  2. Logical Extremes Monday, March 17, 2008

    This is precisely why I feel no guilt in blocking ad servers with my hosts file (along with other protective measures like aggressive cookie management and frequently changing IP addresses, etc). I have not opted in, I have received no benefit, and if I allow tracking I lose all future control of MY data.

    Solutions like Ask and Phorm that require an opt-out cookie are ludicrous. As if I’d let that cookie live forever.

    Those concerned about privacy and security are better off aggressively managing their own presence on the internet.

  3. I would drop my ISP in a heart beat If they tried to pull that. I just hope in the future there will be enough competition to keep the ISP’s from doing whatever they want. This reminds me of the whole net neutrality issue.

  4. Marcin Grodzicki Monday, March 17, 2008

    On one hand – it’s kind of creepy Big Brother issue. I do loads of stuff on my computer – most of it work, some of it fun and the rest, well… That’s purely my business. I don’t want anyone poking in here, as much as I don’t want anyone poking in my living room. On the other hand – the net is not my living room. It’s a public space mostly. So if I publish stuff or let my shopping history be visible – I can’t blame anyone for using this information. Tracking people is a different matter, although I don’t really think such systems will change anything significanlty, since 1. some people will stop using those services, 2. other services that don’t do that will show up, 3. people will ultimately always fight back – with software or other solutions.

    The one thing that really pisses me off business-wise is why do I have to pay for someone watching me? Why do I pay for not being able to even FFD ads on my DVD? Why do I have to sit and watch ads in a cinema? Why am I getting commercials from my mobile operator that charges me 120USD every month? In other words – why do they always want to earn twice? Are they so greedy?

  5. It is a big scary how ‘big brother’ society is becoming – not just re: privacy on the web. It’s probably more worrying for people who don’t work in the internet industry, as they’re much less likely to hear about/understand how to combat these issues.

  6. Web Worker Daily » Archive Think You Own Your Own Clicks? Think Again. « Saturday, May 17, 2008

    [...] previously covered some of the furor in the UK over the activities of ad network Phorm, who has partnered with major [...]

  7. Web Worker Daily » Archive Trade Privacy for Ads with Hotspot Shield « Thursday, May 29, 2008

    [...] concerned about the sort of behavior tracking being carried out by companies like NebuAd and Phorm, then AnchorFree has a deal for you. Download and run their Hotspot Shield application (for either [...]

  8. An additional solution to avoid “The Ever Watchful Eye of Google” is obfuscation. The idea is to generate fake queries to mask your real queries and deceive search-profiling. This approach can be extended to also deceive Phorm tracking. Two (free) Firefox add-ons use this approach to protect privacy:
    SquiggleSR (that I develop): https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/5986
    TrackMeNot: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/3173

  9. WebWorkerDaily » Archive Maintaining Privacy as an Online Freelancer « Wednesday, December 31, 2008

    [...] of Twitter also let the public know what they’re up to most of the day.  Here at WWD, we also discussed the lack of privacy of the average web user when it comes to their browsing [...]

  10. Your Mobile Carrier Will Sell You for Pennies Monday, February 16, 2009

    [...] move may not mean anything to its 175 million-odd customers, but it’s a great example of the prevailing attitude towards privacy (or rather, the lack thereof) on the [...]

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