Friday, March 15, 2013
Anti-tracking features of browsers have (probably) necessary "loopholes"
Peter Swire, Ohio State University assistant law professor and a privacy advisor to the Clinton Administration, warns that the battle over tracking web browsing could “break the Internet” and lead to an “arms race”.
That is the obvious opening tone of a front page story, “Browser makers consider limiting Web-user tracking,” by Craig Timberg, titled online (more precisely), “Web browsers consider limiting how much they track users”, link here. Anti-tracking pressures seem to come from within the Internet community was well as from government.
There is an existential concern, that if visitors don’t allow any tracking by advertisers, the “free content” business model of today will collapse, everything will be behind paywalls or subscription, and there may no longer be an economic incentive for publishing platforms like Blogger and Wordpress to exist. Sociak media could also be jeopardized, although they are really changing the notion of publishing to an common experience that assumes social connectivity and even popularity.
But the actual changes now being offered by web browsers, like Firefox, may be more benign than they look at first glance. The anti-tracking features to be provided by default in Mozilla would not prevent tracking by shopping (Amazon) or news (like newspapers) that users voluntarily go to, but would prohibit tracking by embedded ads, which often cause pages to load more slowly (but which “pay” for the “free content” – more like broadcast media than “the library”). Microsoft Internet Explorer activates a “request” that users not be tracked, but compliance seems to be “voluntary”.
Internet freedom groups, like EFF, and pro-consumer groups have vigorously supported anti-tracking, The “dangers” to consumers from tracking are probably overblown, but could provide security problems or open doors to identity theft for people in tricky life situations. (I’ve wondered this when I travel, as both on my laptop and mobile devices, the Internet seems to know what city I’m in, which could open a door to hacking and crime.) But both the interests of self-expression and consumer convenience and efficiency do depend on the ability of advertisers to bring messages to them that they are likely to be interested in.