Piracy v. do not track

Consider the similarities between piracy and do not track. They’re greater than you think, for both reduce value for content creators. And both are excuses for internet regulation.

In piracy, a content company sets business rules: You must pay for my product; if you take it without paying for it, you are robbing me of value.

With do not track, an advertising-supported content company sets business rules: You will get my content for free because I will serve you ads and I will increase their efficiency, performance, and value by targeting them to your interests and behavior; if you block the cookies that make that possible, you are robbing me of value.

The difference between the two is that there is a furor over piracy as theft but, quite to the contrary, there is a rush to enable the blocking of ad tracking as a virtue.

If you listen to The Wall Street Journal, Apple was a good guy for blocking by default third-party cookies (ask what Apple gets out of that). And it’s good news that technology companies just agreed to implement a do-not-track button on browsers.

There is nothing sinister about third-party ad tracking cookies. They’ve been used since very early in the history of the web when General Motors, for example, insisted in serving its own ads on content sites so it could verify what was bought and optimize its targeting. Without that ability, many large advertisers will refuse to buy ads and the value of ad-supported media could plummet — just at a time when we are concerned about how we will support news media.

Odd that a media company wouldn’t be crying foul. The Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, cries bloody murder over piracy — going so far as to accuse Google of theft — but his paper crusades for blocking tracking, claiming it is a violation of privacy (though in most cases, the cookies have no personally identifiable information and so it’s hard to justify a moral panic based on their use).

Murdoch’s News Corp is, at its core, an entertainment company, thus a paid-content company. The ad-supported portion of his P&L is not only small but is causing him much agita as his journalists in the U.K. are accused of violating laws of the nation and the profession.

I’m not building a conspiracy theory. I’m just pointing to the priorities that emerge when one follows the money.

So what about the rest of the industry — the media, advertising, and technology industries, that is? Oh, they blew it. They were never transparent enough about what technology they were using, what data they were gathering, and why — not to mention the benefits that accrued to their users (i.e., free content). That opened the door for other parties — privacy scare-mongers, competitors for our media attention, and government regulators — to demonize the mysterious cookie and stir up this moral panic and paranoia. The M.A.T. industries have only themselves to blame.

In the EU, government regulators have decreed that sites must obtain opt-in permission to set cookies. In the US, the industry agreement today announced is an attempt to forestall government regulation with self-regulation.

But don’t be too quick to celebrate as if these are consumer victories. I believe the EU dictum could lead to (a) a much poorer web experience as we are bombarded with boxes to tick and (b) poorer media companies and thus (c) the possibility of less free media and more pay walls. And in the U.S., it has been shown that one can whip up an anti-net hysteria and bring even giant technology companies to expose their soft underbellies. Each leads to more threats of regulation of the net. That’s what I fear.

It is time for technology companies especially to adopt radical transparency of how they operate so they can’t find themselves in gotcha moments when the hysterical “discover” something they’ve been doing all along. Under such openness, it is also time for them to learn that doing sneaky things will not benefit them. And it is also time for the media, advertising, and technology companies to start fighting back against accusers’ misinformation and explain the truth of what they are doing and how we benefit. That is transparency’s dividend.

LATER: By the way, this post was inspired and informed by a discussion last night on This Week in Google, in which Leo Laporte said he was grateful that I was going so far that I was making him look moderate.

One more point from that discussion: We all practice blocking ads when we fast-forward through commercials on our DVRs. And the industry adapted and still prospers (for now). That’s what may happen here. But one should still recognize the impact of one’s actions — whether skipping or blocking — on the economics of what is provided. And one difference is that we have to skip each commercial manually (especially since, as Leo pointed out, a company that provided easy 30-second skipping was hounded out of business as a result). In the case of do not track, especially government-mandated opt-in — that is wholesale devaluing of advertising in a medium.

  • hobson

    The difference Jeff is that no company has ever offered me their services in return for allowing them to track my internet usage using cookies. If they made that offer explicit and I responded by taking their services while blocking their cookies then yes, you could compare it to privacy.

    If instead they offer the consumer “free” content and never mention the cookies then it’s reasonable for consumers to take the content and block the cookies. There’s no comparison with a company who explicitly offers to sell me something.

    • I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Fairer comparison, perhaps, is to say that we fast-forward through commercials on TV shows and thus reduce the value of the advertising there. We all do it and the industry has adapted and still prospers (for now). Note that a company that offered a DVR with 30-second jumping was forced out of business for doing so, though.

      • CVi

        It is a stretch; the government say they are helping “the people”, they are not, they are helping te giant corporations screw “the people” over.

        The cookie hysteria is NOTHING compared to Facebook; they explicitly in their privacy statement tell you that if they can fond some way to sell your data to a third party, they will.
        Google don’t even let HUMANS touch their data in fear of snooping.

        And to kick in my words on Leo’s information bubble:
        Perfect advertising doesn’t enforce who you are, there is no money in that, you don’t preach to the coir. The perfect advertising leads you along the path of your development, and anticipates your *next* turn.

    • I suppose what your post tells me is that websites and advertisers have done a poor job of explaining that this is how it’s always been done. It’s incredibly disappointing that people still haven’t figured this out for themselves.

      I’m curious – would you still buy a print-magazine subscription if Conde Nast explained “by purchasing this magazine and other magazines in our network, your name and address will be shared with advertisers. They will know that you like teen fashion, golf, men’s accessories, and are an occasional world traveller” ?

      I go back to what Jeff has always said – where’s the harm? My online profile is open. I welcome advertisers to know that I would like an inexpensive hotel in Hawaii, a new Nissan, and Android devices. I’ve searched for those things, which means I’ll probably buy them if a good deal rolls by.

      If I really want to hide what I’m searching for, I can use Incognito mode in Chrome. It’s easy.

      TL;DR – Get over it. There are plenty of ways to hide yourself without legislation.

      • hobson

        I’m not saying tracking does me any harm. And it makes no difference at all – this is also in answer to Shane P Brady – whether I have figured out the business model for myself.

        All that matters is the offer you (as a news org) have made me (as a consumer). If you’ve offered me the fruits of your labor in return for me giving you something in return – whether that’s money, my personal details, whatever – then there’s a case for saying I shouldn’t take your content without fulfilling my side of the bargain.

        If you offer me something for nothing then I’m quite entitled to take something for nothing. The idea that you actually hoped to get something in return but didn’t tell me – *even if I figured it out for myself* – is irrelevant. If you want to make a deal then you need to offer me a deal, not pretend you’re doing it out of love and complain when I take you at your word.

      • CVi

        Sorry, the levels don’t allow me to reply to hobson directly:
        You did agree! You connected to the internet!

        And I don’t see you objecting to the companies that collect information about you for “printed spam”; when a woman gives birth, there is a record, on paper, and it leaves a trail. Somebody are going to buy access to that trail, so they know that that woman and her spouse had a son on a given date etc. etc. Og, and the same goes for every magazine subscription, they sell that information to someone, most likely the same someone, and they use that to know when to push targeted printed spam at you.
        You didn’t agree to that, did you? If you did, how come you agreed to that, and not the Cookies? You signed the exact same agreement; nothing.

  • hobson

    I mean “then yes, you could compare it to *piracy”, sorry!:)

  • Shane P. Brady


    Did you accept an explicit offer from radio and tv to present ads to you? You’d have to live in an information vacuum to not understand what you get for free is paid for by advertising.

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  • bob

    “There is nothing sinister about third-party ad tracking cookies.”
    Well, let’s agree to disagree, and I’ll continue.

    “[I]n most cases, the cookies have no personally identifiable information.”
    If they are third-party cookies, they don’t need to. Their owners can easily triangulate and see a pattern that has the potential to expose and harm. Or sell to marketers, who might also expose and harm. Or simply pester.

    “[T]he hysterical”
    You mean someone who has not read a EULA from start to finish, before going to sleep?

    Radical transparency is a pipe dream. Will media companies really ever go radical and share with us what they know about our search and/or browsing habits? Will they let us edit (or even delete) those? (Yes, I know that many offer Prefs/Settings options, but do you trust them, especially in light of Google’s revisions?) And, what’s more important, will they share what they plan to do with that knowledge?

    I’d say no.

    For technically astute pirates, there are myriad ways to cover one’s tracks. For the average cookie-gobbling surfer, privacy is a cause lost long ago.

    If the choice is between secrecy and having someone track my browsing behavior, I’d choose the former. I have nothing to hide, really—except when what I might have searched for online has been turned into a personal profile.

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    • CVi

      Holy shit!
      I hate to say it, but I think it is a conspiracy!
      They are trying to undermine the internet itself. This is so f**ing stupid!
      It’s like reading Richard Dawkins fan mail.

  • If you want free lunch, you’re gonna have to take the cookie…

    • CVi

      +1 to that; could someone implement a “+1 on comments” button for jeff?

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  • Dog

    On the Internet, nobody knows your a dog…

    My alter ego is my dog. Companies track him without fail. I love it when his info is sold from a web site, and he gets a phone call – “Sorry, he can’t come to the phone, he’s outside digging a hole”.

    I disagree with the combining tracking with advertising. Advertising is telling me about your product or service, and even watching to see if I click on the ad is fine. That is a measure of the ad’s effectiveness.

    What does tracking what web sites I visit have to do with advertising?

    Amazon tracks the searches I make on their web site to suggest products, even generate specials for items I might like to buy. That is fine.

    Anyone that tracks me on 3rd party sites is simply spying. That’s why I accept first party cookies, but use all the privacy tools available to prevent as much spying as I can.

  • Matthieu

    So you think consumer shouldn’t be offered an easy way to opt-out?
    I think Do Not Track is an excellent thing, as noted by EFF : Google Circumvents Safari Privacy Protections – This is Why We Need Do Not Track

    The WSJ is doing an excellent job at explaining tracking, it’s a shame that other media didn’t do the work before. I think you are affraid of this scenario : if the majority of people refuse to be tracked. I agree it would be bad for advertising but I think this scenario is not very credible. Do Not Track will be an option : how many people will activate this option?
    Far better to offer a DNT respected by all actors than a privacy scandal every other week, which would lead to greater harm for the advertising industry. For example : 3rd party cookie opt-in where only Google and Facebook cookies would be accepted by users.

  • Cookies/tracking offers more relevant ads which means we are more likely to click on them. No? so a win win situation for you, for me and for them! We need greater transparency on the issue yes! and an opt out could be part of that.

    • CVi

      the real issue is nit Google, if they popularize do-not-track, they will comply and serve you shitty ads… But the real malicious bastards out there who sell this information to someone who may or may not use it in malicious intent (like your insurance company to find one possible word-barf agreement so they can deny you your next claim. They are not going to comply.

      Google is the good guy, there is bad guys out there too… and the puny preposed fixes are not going to do it. Just like DRM, you are just punishing the good guys.

  • Peter

    Give me the choice! You should be able to decide, whether you can track someone.

    If one chooses not to allow 3rd party cookies, don’t show the content. Ok, thats fair. But don’t force it.

    • CVi

      You have a choice. The Free internet, and the insides of a paywall!

  • If it were immoral to choose not to act in a way which increases your revenue, then I’d be morally obliged to give you money each and every day. To do otherwise would be theft, of course.

    “Hamburgers $2, hamburgers without strawberry jam $5” is a ridiculous business model. Meanwhile, you are telling people off for removing the jam before they eat it.

    • CVi

      Are the hamburgers in question subsidized by the strawberry jam corporation?

      It is however VERY VERY immoral not to try to IMPROVE YOUR PRODUCT. You’ll end up like GMC.
      The other option really is a pay wall. And if you prefer that, then get your butt into Murdoch’s bubble.

  • John Baxter

    Jeff, Leo L is wrong about one matter: it is not just Safari on iOS that defaults to the no third party cookies setting. Desktop Safari (on Mac–why is there a desktop Safari on Windows?) has also defaulted to that setting, and has for as long as the browser has offered a setting (which I think was the first version of Safari, at about the 3rd version of Mac OS X.

    Although…I could be wrong, as my settings have been coming forward. I haven’t looked at a freshly-installed Lion–you might ask Leo to do so.

    I leave Safari set to only sites I visit. I run IE9’s tracking protection (including Microsoft’s new list that–for the moment–block’s Google’s annoying workaround). I don’t bother changing the Firefox setting (and didn’t bother changing Chrome’s before I expunged it from my machines).

    And I don’t run ad blockers. It’s fine for the companies to count impressions if they want to. However, an ad network that tells advertisers that their targeted ads on my screens are more valuable than non-targeted ones is committing fraud on its clients, as I don’t see more than 95% of the ads presented (including the ones that sit in front of the site blocking it–I manage to find the close widget without seeing the content.

    (Of course the ad networks don’t claim that specifically about me–they claim it about averages, where it is true.)

    And the advertisers in the more egregious ads are lucky I don’t know who they are: in the cases where I do notice, the advertised product and the company goes to the bottom of my list of possible purchases and vendors.

    • CVi

      So you are telling me that targeted advertising has no value what so ever…

      Are you trying to tell me that Leo’s Audible or Ford ad’s have no more value at his place (per set of eyeballs) than they would at the super bowl?
      Are you trying to tell me that Ice.com LIED to him about his users spending the most money of ANY target group at their store.
      Are you telling me that an advertising for “Rolling Walker with Shopping Basket” are worth exactly the same advertising value when presented to a five year old as when presented to a senior?

      I’m calling your bluff right here and now.

  • Steve Roz

    Regarding the ’30-second jumping’ company…please provide the company name and a link to its news. You should know better than to make a claim that an anonymous company was forced out of business by anonymous others without providing some sort of verification and background.

    • And you should know better than to be so rude in asking your question. Or you should know how to use Google. It’s easy. Here is the fruit of the search: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ReplayTV

    • Picker of Nits

      Actually Tivos do the 30 second jump even today, with a simple one-time tweak of buttons on the remote. ReplayTV could be set to seamlessly skip commercials entirely without any manual intervention. On Tivo I have to click click click to skip. I know the rhythm of the spot breaks and rarely watch an ad.
      The adaptation has been to embed those giant lower 1/3 ads over the program and/or leave a ghost ad block up on the screen somewhere thru the program, thus obscuring and devaluing the program content.
      I hate that. I’ve never bought or watched something because of those ads, I’ll actively avoid product “whatever” just to keep from rewarding that behavior. They don’t care.

  • Steve Roz

    How dare anyone question the thin-skinned, condescending, and intellectually superior, grand poobah of the digital universe? That’s downright blasphemous.

    There’s a reason why using Wikipedia as a primary source is frowned upon by self-respecting journalists; often its wrong or incomplete!

    Replay TV is still limping along, despite its bloody ineptness. Nevertheless, the company was not forced out of business in the way to which you allude.

    http://bit.ly/y1Xmv8 http://bit.ly/z17vmP

    • CVi

      Often is not Always, and it is certainly not “most of the time”
      And as it turns out several studies has turned out the result that Wikipedias accurate content is among the best in the world. The fact that “self-respecting journalists” frown upon it is stupid. Wikipedia as a primary source used UNCRITICALLY is stupid. But it takes a 15 minute training session to be able to spot the bad articles and you only need a critical eye to discern it.

      And are you sure that ReplayTV wasn’t bullied out of the marketplace?
      It only requires the same bullying that Microsoft used on Dell and HP to stop preinstalled Linux; Microsoft giving them a lesser deal on their products.

  • Kevin Selle

    I applaud your call for transparency, but am very frustrated. You continue to say “So Nike knows how fast you are running, who cares?”. It is not your decision, or Nike’s, to know how fast I am running, no matter how much it affects the web, or advertising, it is the users. Nilay Patel was right, the privacy advocates, much like the copyright advocates, are not going to go away. Meet them in the middle. Damn it, none of these entities that you claim are going to be hurt have a “right” to exist. “Opt-in” ends all of this whining immediately…and let’s you (please) get back to some of the original conversation and discovery that made TWiG so fantastic (did I mention, please?).

    • CVi

      Privacy advocates are like republicans: “our way or not at all”
      They are not rational.
      Blocking ads are just as much theft as piracy is. That is a fact. Jeff just proved it.^
      The key is in how much theft it really is.
      Now you can start arguing… Put the privacy advocates up against the copyright advocates. That is a fight I’d like to see. Because forcing a do-not-track feature is like banning DRM.

  • Jason Wheeler

    Basically, if I get what you are saying, Do Not Track, which is opting out of being tracked by unvisited websites is the same as online piracy, which is the ill-gotten gain of something valuable be it music, television, movies etc. Your argument is that opting out of third party tracking is theft against online advertisers.
    In advertising, I am told about a product or service I may or may not require or want. If I follow up and click on the ad, then the ad is effective and doesn’t need to track me.
    If I am on a site such as ebay or amazon, and they track my what I buy in order to suggest other things that might interest a purchase from me, then it isn’t third party tracking nor advertising and is not a part of do not track.
    However, if a third party website that I have never visited is tracking me, even if they don’t take serious identification information, they are still spying on my browsing history which really is my own business.
    And when you say “there is nothing sinister about third party ad tracking cookies,” you make a bold blanket statement concerning every single third party tracking cookie. It disregards that there is spyware out there that tracks to steal identities or simply just pester with the same ad continually.
    Besides, the good internet pirates who know what they are doing will still get around the tracking cookies.

    • CVi


      In my eyes advertisement companies are a dating service. They match up buyer to seller, the more they know about both the better match.

      What I really want is that the data stays on Googles servers, and is not sold to a third party.

  • Rick

    So let me get this straight. Your position is that you want people to:

    1. Have a control sustem over the information that is collected about them.
    2. Have the default state for this control system set to “no control”
    3. Don’t tell people that there is such a thing as information collecting.
    4. Don’t tell people there is a control system.

    Interesting logic.

    Albert Warned of the acceptance of automated systems, because you never know who will get control of them and what they might do with them.

    The default design we have today for the internet has been mostly guided by the “spirit of profit of the few off the many” this has generally lead to more and more centralized control and secrecy.

    I personally would like to see every design element embody the principal of openness/transparency directed at decentralizing power back into the hands of the individual.

    • No. I say there needs to be transparency. But I also think that businesses should have the means to set their own rules and conditions for the sale or use of what they create and if it doesn’t work in the market, that’s their problem.

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  • Jeff, this is one of the most coherent, well written articles I’ve read encapsulating the Do Not Track issue and explanation of the quid pro quo for ad-support publishers.

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