Companies like Yahoo!, Microsoft, and (especially) Google depend on being able to track your browsing habits to better target you with advertisements. In the past 2 years, the proportion of ads being served through ad tracking networks has climbed from 5% to more than 30%, so these tracking networks like Doubleclick (Google), BlueLithium (Yahoo!) and aQuantive (Microsoft) are the lifeblood of the top web properties. DoubleClick touches more than 80% of the addressable Internet population.
Tracking people's behavior on the web is incredibly lucrative, so everyone wants a piece of the action:
- FireFox, the popular web browser, has announced plans to track your browsing habits directly from the browser, without needing to use tracking cookies.
- AT&T has announced that they can track your browsing behavior directly off of the wire, without needing to extend the browser or use tracking cookies. They will sell this information to ad networks, or use it to target their own ads.
- Several other ISPs have already embarked on projects to track people's behavior for ad tracking, supported by startups like NebuAd and Phorm.
With all of these companies fighting over you like a piece of meat, you'd think someone would ask you what you think. Historically, the companies profiting from tracking your behavior have pointed out that people often say that they want privacy, but then give it up easily. Google has gone so far as to say that there is "no such thing as complete privacy" and they don't get a lot of credit from the critics for sincerity.
So, must we resign ourselves to this trend? Five years from now, will your web browser, ISP, and everyone else spy on you with impunity?
The answer seems to be "no". The first volley was the class-action suit last week against Facebook for the abortive "Beacon" feature. Facebook's "Beacon" feature wasn't actually intended to invade privacy, and didn't go nearly as far as the examples cited above -- but this case demonstrates that people actually *do* care about privacy, and are willing to take action to protect it. Likewise, people almost immediately raised the privacy red flag when Yahoo! announced Fire Eagle location tracking service.
Far more interesting to me is the news yesterday that Congress will be taking up legislation to protect privacy online. This legislation is aimed directly at web tracking networks and software or network operators who track your behavior.
This is huge. The legislation would require companies to get your permission before spying on you. A stronger proposal would require that those spying on your behavior allow you to opt-out at any time, and establish the equivalent of a "do not call" list. There are many details to be worked out, and some well-funded parties with strong incentive to weaken the legislation, so I'm tempering my optimism. But this is a huge step in the right direction.
What do you think? Do we need legislation, or will the industry self-regulate? And do you think that this proposed legislation stands a prayer of making it through the process with teeth intact?