Jerry Michalski just published a “nice article on big data”:http://www.forbes.com/sites/jerrymichalski/2012/03/10/big-data-stalker-economy/ and how we are all being stalked online by commercial entities seeking to extract value from us. Everytime we hit a web page, tens and hundreds of companies and organizations are learning about us and making money off us.
On that Forbes page with Jerry’s article, for instance, looking at the page source reveals explicit references to Omniture, Gigya.com, Doubleclick, Facebook, Buysub.com, Googlesyndication.com, a tremendous number of Forbes subdomains, Truste.com, Sharethis.com, loading scripts from most of these. And who knows what all those scripts do, some of them may pull in other companies and ad networks. All these orgs are collecting data about our page views and making money off that data — selling it to advertisers, etc.
Looking at another example page, “College Football News”:http://cfn.scout.com/, there are visible ads from Fox Sports, H&R Block, Microsoft, Bing, MSN, McDonald’s, Chase, HTC, Lancome, ESPN, Canon. Digging into the page source, there are a whole slew of companies that are tracking and noting activity: Advertising.com, Comotionmedia.com, Realmedia.com, Doubleclick.net, Googlesyndication.com, Footballfanatics.com, Cloudfront.net, decipherinc.com, imrworldwide.com.
Now look at the cookies stored by the browser, there is a huge list of advertisers and trackers, in fact the list of cookies is dominated by ad serving and tracking companies: 123count.com, 247realmedia.com, 2o7.net (adobe), 33across.com, adbrite.com, adelixir.com, admeld.com (google), adnxs.com, adsrvr.org, adsymptotic.com (drawbrid.ge), advertising.com, adxpose.com, AEG Digital Media, afy11.net (Adify), and so on. Hundreds of these things. (Prompting me to clear the cookie cache and turn off 3rd party cookies, but how many users know to do this, and why do I have to go do this?)
None of this is new, this is the way the web has worked for years. But every year the ads and tracking just seems to get a little more invasive, a little more pervasive, a little creepier. Through all this, no one is really acting as the representative for our interests. Obviously the ad networks are not acting in our interest — and the fact that they hide their actions under a profusion of cookies with a profusion of obscure brand names suggests that they are actively working to obscure their actions. Web sites aren’t acting in our interest, they don’t inform us up front who is tracking us, they let all these tracking cookies be placed. Our browsers aren’t acting in our interest — yes we can go twiddle cookie settings but it is not default or obvious.
Here is what we need from someone, anyone: a sidebar in browser that shows
* For the current page, a list of all the advertisers, of all the ad networks and trackers, and the ability to opt out, block the ad or cookie right there, not deep in some preferences dialog.
* Also, an imputed value — what did that advertiser pay to the website for that ad? How much did the ad network/tracker sell our visit for?
* And for each tracker — exactly what data did they collect, what have they collected over time? What do they know about us?
* For the day/week/month, a summary across all our browsing — how much data has been collected, how much total $ has been made by who for our data
No one is acting in our interest today, the advertisers and web sites and ad networks and browsers are all complicit in extracting our attention and monetizing it, without disclosure to us. At the very least it is not respectful; and it feels much more odious than that. It is doubtful that MSFT or Google or Apple will lead in solving this, they are too involved in the advertising $ flow. We need to look to smaller creative independents.