Does Google know what you’re doing online? Eighty-eight percent of the time, the answer might be yes. Earlier this month a group of graduate students at UC Berkeley released a detailed report on the extent of online tracking and the disconnect between reality and user expectations. The data in the report was collected from various sources including examination of popular and randomly selected websites, surveys, and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The examinations of websites searched for the presence of “web bugs”—the term the researchers apply to the various methods third party tracking services use to monitor activities online.
The recommendations are not brand-new and it has generally been argued that such requirements would either frustrate business online or be of little benefit to users. I believe that it is indeed true that the requirements may frustrate certain kinds of businesses online but in the long run will benefit the majority. Greater transparency and accountability will increase user trust in online businesses. In the short term it may affect the revenue streams garnered by targeted advertising and data collection but it is not impossible for businesses to find new sources of income or adapt the old ones to respect the privacy of users online. The second argument is usually that users don’t really want the kind of privacy the report is advocating. They are content as long as no actual harm comes from the collection of information. The surveys and FTC complaints summarized by the Berkeley report contradict this argument. Users are concerned about their privacy and want greater control. The history of FTC complaints has shown that when users are made aware of invasions of their privacy, they will act to hold the company accountable.