It’s Time to Limit Online Tracking
Disclosure: I’m the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn’t track you. I may be biased, but I’m also well-informed.
We already put legal limits on financial, medical, military, transportation, telecommunications and agriculture technology. Why not online tracking? With digital technology making its way into more parts of our lives, and with our data quickly becoming more and more valuable, of course there should be some limits on online tracking!
The operative question is: what limits? The status quo of collect it all and reveal as little as possible has to go, but there is a massive range between maximum possible collection and minimum necessary collection. Here are a few things we could do. Companies (and governments) could explicitly tell you what is happening to your personal information. They could allow you to opt-out. They could give you granular control of your data. They could even tell you exactly what you’re getting when you give out specific pieces of information. Disclosure requirements could mimic those in other areas like credit cards and mortgages where the most relevant risks are highlighted. In other words, there are a lot of options. I would love to see regulation solve these control and transparency issues by enabling creative technological solutions.
The NSA files have woken us all up to the perils of government and corporate surveillance. Now the vast majority of us are concerned about online tracking, and privacy concerns are increasing every day with increasing awareness.
The important debates and reactions to government surveillance are still continuing, but we need to extend these debates to include corporate surveillance. After all, where do you think all this government surveillance data is coming from? Governments request (or steal) user data from corporations, and these same corporations also use it for their own purposes. Some of these uses are over the line for most people.
We’ve all noticed those annoying ads following us around the Internet. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most people still don’t know that private companies build and sell profiles about them or that many retailers charge different prices based on these data profiles.
The bottom line is that if your personal information can be used to make companies more profits, then you have to expect it will be used to do so, unless legislation prevents it. While advertising can certainly be responsible, left unchecked it can easily veer into unsavory territory. That’s the territory we need to regulate.
Now to be clear I am no fan of government regulation. Far from it. Just like with government surveillance, I think good intentions can end up in bad places. Regulation is often captured by the organizations that are supposedly being regulated. I always look first to market-based solutions.
And there are indeed a few solutions that actually grant you partial relief from the pains of online tracking. First, switch your search engine, email and other major services where your personal information is heavily tracked to good private alternatives. Second, add EFF’s HTTPS Everywhere plugin to your browser, which will encrypt web site connections where possible. Third, add EFF’s Privacy Badger plugin to your browser, which blocks third-party trackers. These three simple changes will pretty seamlessly and significantly reduce your digital footprint.
Unfortunately, none of these solutions stop unscrupulous web sites from handing over or selling your data after your visit. There are some problems markets can’t solve alone, and this is one of them. Don’t fret though; this situation is actually the rule, not the exception. Pretty much all technologies have facets where markets break down and require some form of corrective regulation to make things work the way we want them to.
Mark my words. There will be massive lobbying against putting significant limits on online tracking. There will be attempts to hijack the debate with false claims. Some will say people don’t care. Not true. Some will say you have nothing to hide. Really? Some will say self-regulation will work. Laughable. Some will say incognito mode will protect you. Myth. Some will say they will “partially anonymize” the data. Nope. Time and time again attempts to “partially anonymize” data have failed.
These false claims don’t have to carry the day like they have in the past. Luckily, we are now in an awesome era of effective online political movements. With your help, taking back our online privacy can be one of them. We need people of all political persuasions to demand the most basic controls over their personal information. It’s really not a big ask.
Please spread the word.
Re-edited September 19, 2015. Thank you to Caine Tighe, Zac Pappis, Jaryd Malbin, Russell Holt, Stephen Mendel, Brad Burnham and Nick Grossman for editing advice.