Monday, May 25, 2015

Watching the Watchers: Tracking Makes the Web Worse

Internet privacy is a fairly recent addition to the list of oxymorons like military intelligence and classified advertisement. Privacy issues on the internet interact constantly with monitization attempts, because, the old cliche tells us, if you aren't paying for the product then you are the product. Increasingly, "big data" analytics drive more and more advertising. And for that to be effective, there must be a way of establishing patterns, tying all the movements on the internet together. And of course, there are. Mostly in the form of tracking cookies or javascript snippets that can tell a server where you are. Recent work by Monica Chew and Georgios Kontaxis using the currently-in-development tracking protection feature of the Mozilla Firefox browser to look at the top 200 news sites resulted not only two thirds less cookies than usual on a system but also a better than 40% reduction in average page load times and nearly 40% reduction in data use. Learning the performance of web pages is harmed by tracking and analytics is hardly a surprise, but learning how big that number is surprised me. With the ascendance of mobile and the attendant data caps, the data usage is hardly something to overlook either. And so as commercial interests struggle to make themselves relevant to our personal interests, they add drag into the system. On the other hand, something has to pay the bills for those news sites, because it seems the users sure aren't interested in doing so anymore.

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