Do-not-track hypocrisy

Sunday’s New York Times editorializes in favor of Do Not Track and other privacy legislation going through Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. Yet The New York Times itself makes much use of personal, private, and tracking information itself. Indeed, it requires tracking.

The editorial (my emphasis): “Congress should act on the F.T.C.’s recommendation to establish a system that would allow consumers to effectively opt out of all tracking of their online activities. There are other worthy proposals, including the administration’s call for limits on the collection of data about consumers online. Lawmakers have proposed about a dozen privacy bills this year alone. But with Congress stuck in a partisan rut, it is reassuring to see the F.T.C. at work.”

Now read The Times’ privacy policy (and highlights):

* If you subscribe to the print New York Times, the company will sell your name *and address* and other unspecified data to others. “If you are a print subscriber to The New York Times newspaper and subscribed either by mail, phone or online, we may exchange or rent your name and mailing address and certain other information, such as when you first subscribed to The New York Times (but not your e-mail address) with other reputable companies that offer marketing information or products through direct mail.” That’s not opt-in; it’s opt-out.

In Public Parts, I argue that privacy policies in old media have long been far worse than online. Magazines, newspapers, and other recipients of your media money have for years sold information about what you read and consume and who you are and where you live to large data-base companies and marketers. If a library or an online site did that, it would be shot. But The New York Times does that. Want to pass a law about that, Times?

* The New York Times requires that you use cookies. It decrees: “You will not be able to access certain areas of our Web sites, including NYTimes.com, if your computer does not accept cookies from us.” So what happens when Congress passes Do Not Track, Times?

In its explanation of cookies, The Times says: “Our registration system requires that you accept cookies from NYTimes.com in order to log in to our Web site. Cookies are not spyware, viruses or any other kind of malicious program. For best results, set your browser options to accept all cookies from NYTimes.com. You can use your browser options to clear the cookies later, if necessary.”

Precisely. You have many means now to get rid of cookies: You can turn them off, kill them at the end of every session or whenever you want, or open a private session (an “incognito” window in Chrome) that relays no data about you. Do Not Track is redundant. It’s political cynicism.

Oh, and The Times — which gathers more personally identifiable data about you than most any other newspaper — could not operate its paywall without cookies.

* Just like other online marketers, The Times uses cookies to target advertising. “The New York Times Home Delivery Web site also transmits non-personally identifiable Web site usage information about visitors to the servers of a reputable third party for the purpose of targeting our Internet banner advertisements on other sites. To do this, we use Web Beacons in conjunction with cookies provided by our third-party ad server on this site.” Would The Times outlaw this essential business behavior? This is how The Times earns its premium rates with branding advertisers.

* The Times hires a number of analytics companies to track your behavior, from the creepily named Audience Science to WebTrends for the web and from Localytics to the fluffily named Flurry for mobile.

* The Times logs what pages you see and uses that to recommend content.

* It logs your location if you use mobile applications.

* It allows third-party ad servers to place cookies on your computer and track your behavior.

Note, too, that The Wall Street Journal, which has been on a Reefer Madness high regarding privacy, also collects personally identifiable information and connects it to browsing history without users’ permission. More hypocrisy.

Mind you, I do not object to any of these tracking behaviors. They are, in my opinion, necessary to pay for the content we get from The Times and The Journal and much of the rest of media. They are used to reduce noise, repetition, and irrelevant advertising and content. They are all-in-all harmless and have been demonized by privacy’s regulatory-industrial complex and now even by The Times. If The Times gets its wish and Do Not Track passes, enabling too many consumers “to effectively opt out of all tracking of their online activities,” then I fear we will get less content or more paywalls or both.

I also argue that media and marketing companies have done a godawful job of letting their customers know what information they were gathering and what they were doing with it and how consumers benefited. They long ago should have learned from Amazon, which reveals what it collects and what results and enables customers to see and control and correct that information (which also only gives Amazon yet more valuable data). So it’s their own damned fault they’ve been demonized, opening the door to the cynical pols and bureaucrats who proposed Do Not Track — and to their allies, such as The Times editorialists, who argue on the basis of nonspecific emotions rather than tangible facts about harm and consequences.

  • http://www.danreich.com Dan Reich

    Guess that’s what happens when there is a disconnect between an editorial staff and those working to bring in the money to write their pay checks. The NYTimes has done a great job in using these technologies appropriately and effectively. Maybe the editorial staff should pay them a visit.

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  • http://www.secenek.org güncel blog

    Guess that’s what happens when there is a disconnect between an editorial staff and those working to bring in the money to write their pay checks. The NYTimes has done a great job in using these technologies appropriately and effectively. Maybe the editorial staff should pay them a visit.

  • David Wright

    As I have seen one relevant / intersting advert, which I have clicked on in the last 10 years, I’d rather they didn’t bother tracking and went back to selling random advertising.

    Even Amazon don’t get it right, they know what they buy (E.g. a smartphone) and then send me adverts for new smartphone offers for the next 6 months! Er, hello, I’ve just bought a fragging smartphone, I’m highly unlikely to buy another inside a week!

    If the tracking is for my benefit, then fine, I’ll let them do it. But for groups like Facebook, they really don’t need to know what I’m doing when I’m not there – I’m not a member, so they REALLY shouldn’t still be tracking my movements with their “Like” scripts automatically gobbling up information when I visit a third party site

    That’s why I like the Heise Verlag extension to jQuery for disabling Facebook, Google+ and Twitter buttons on web sites by default and only injecting the relevant JavaScript and images onto the site, when the visitor enables the button(s).

    http://www.heise.de/extras/socialshareprivacy/
    (sorry, the documentation is only in German)

  • Ad_Guy

    What a crock of crap. The word you’re seeking and or lacking in this piece is TRUST. I trust the NYtimes, as do most. I do not trust any one of the 300+ companies that make their money by tracking, profiling and selling my actions to the highest bidder. All, solely for their benefit yet sold under the guise that its good for the reader/viewer…

    You’re either a paid shill for one of the above companies or woefully ignorant as to the extent of this trade.

    • Andy Freeman

      > The word you’re seeking and or lacking in this piece is TRUST. I trust the NYtimes, as do most.

      Trust them to do, or not do, what?

      > All, solely for their benefit yet sold under the guise that its good for the reader/viewer…

      Do you really think that the online-NYT is different, that it has any interest other than its own?

      I ask because the off-line NYT sells addresses and the like more aggressively than most.

  • https://Twitter.com/ed Ed

    Blame Google / Google Chrome above all.

    Chrome remains the last major browser fighting DoNotTrack,
    and does so as Google greatly increases their lobbying spend in D.C.

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  • http://smethur.st Michael Smethurst

    So you say:

    > Magazines, newspapers, and other recipients of your media money have for years sold information about what you read and consume and who you are and where you live to large data-base companies and marketers

    Which is true but only for subscribers and obviously not for newstand purchasers. You can argue for (it’s what keeps them in business) or against (it’s privacy invasion) but if you’re comparing that to what happens with web tracking that’s apples and oranges. At best a publisher of a print product can say person x subscribed to this newspaper between these dates. Given web tracking it’s possible to say that this IP address read articles x, y and z at these times, in these places. Given web tracking against an account it’s possible to say the same for a person. There’s a degree of difference in data granuality between subscribes to newspaper and reads articles. And who gets caught in that net. A difference you never acknowledge.

    There’s also a large degree of difference between first party cookies and third party cookies. As you point out first party cookies are necessary to operate a pay wall. They’re also necessary to provide any kind of personalised service (because http is stateless). (“The Times logs what pages you see and uses that to recommend content.”)

    Third party cookies are an altogether different kettle of fish because the same third party will serve many different first parties and can triangulate that data to track you across domains and across the web.

    You also say:

    > I do not object to any of these tracking behaviors. They are, in my opinion, necessary to pay for the content we get from The Times and The Journal and much of the rest of media.

    I’d argue that if any business can’t survive / grow by selling its product transparently / “publicly” in an open market and instead has to rely on under the radar private surveillance probably deserves to go out of business.

    In all this you never actually explain what do not track is. It is not “do not track ever”, it’s “do not track by default without getting the user’s consent”. Unfortunately, policy makers, like journalists, work from the headline first. To get their consent publishers will have to inform them of the benefits they get. Surely this plays to your notions of openness, transparency and “publicness”?

    The same fuzziness is apparent in much of your writing about privacy and “publicness”. You laud the Googles and the Facebooks for enlarging the public space without ever recognising that they’re privatising the public space of the web. Or if you recognise it you never admit it.

    Anyway… some lazy journalism from them, some lazy journalism from you and nobody wins. Or emerges any the wiser. There is a debate to be had here but journalists of all stripes are, as ever, just constructing facts around opinions.

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