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July 30 2012

14:00

The Fundamental Problem With Political Cookies, Microtargeting

The MIT Technology Review recently posted an article titled, "Campaigns to Track Voters with 'Political Cookies." It freaks me out for a reason I'll get to below.

From Technology Review:

The technology involves matching a person's web identity with information gathered about that person offline, including his or her party registration, voting history, charitable donations, address, age, and even hobbies.

Companies selling political targeting services say "microtargeting" of campaign advertising will make it less expensive, more up to the minute, and possibly less intrusive. But critics say there's a downside to political ads that combine offline and online data. "These are not your mom and pop TV ads. These are ads increasingly designed for you--to tell you what you may want to hear," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

funny-pictures-cat-wishes-to-access-your-cookies.jpg

Like most conscientious web users, I'm skeeved by the privacy issues of cookies, even as I tolerate them for their convenience.

But the real, immediate, permanent harm of political cookies, like Chester argues, is the other kind of privacy: the privacy it affords you to avoid public discussion, the (otherwise positive) right to be left alone.

Targeted ads bypass the public. They needn't be subject to civic debate. In fact, they foreclose the very possibility. With political cookies, civic debate about those messages can only happen within the subject's own head.

When MIT Center for Civic Media's own Matt Stempeck and Dan Schultz proposed projects like a recommended daily intake for the news, a credibility API, or automatic bullshit detectors, they're doing a great service but not necessarily a public service. Their work implicitly acknowledges -- and they're right -- that a political message is now predominantly a direct communications experience, from a campaign directly to an individual subject.

toward private politics

It's a private experience. Democracy without the demos. By definition and design, there's no public counterpoint to an ad targeted with cookies.

The earliest examples of American democracy took for granted that debate was public, happening among many individuals and associations of them. And a core logic, without which the rest fails, is that people are persuadable. Campaigns would love to persuade, but it's cheaper to reinforce. And reinforcement happens by aggregating individuals' click and spending data, with targeting taking into account predispositions, self-identification, and biases.

There's no need to persuade. No need, it feels, to be persuaded. No need to live outside our own private politics.

A version of this post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

Andrew Whitacre is Communications Director for the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, 2007 Knight News Challenge winner. A native of the nation's capital, Whitacre has written on communications policy issues, starting with work on satellite radio as a student at Wake Forest University.

April 18 2012

17:46

Who watches the watchmen? The Guardian crowdsources its investigation into online tracking

As Guardian journalists were preparing to launch their new investigative project on cookies and other online tools that track you around the web, they realized they had to figure out just what kind of trackers exist on their own website.

Turns out this isn’t an easy task. “There are so many legacy ones from us that we forgot about — we had to do some research,” said Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian.

Like many news sites, the Guardian has a mix of cookies — some for geotargeting where readers are, some for registering readers on the site, some for advertising, and more. The end result was this illuminating guide that lays itself over a story page and shows what cookies the Guardian uses. That kind of transparency fits with the Guardian’s embrace of what it calls open journalism, but it’s also an incentive for readers to uncover what kind of cookies follow them around the web. As part of their investigation, the Guardian wants readers to help guide their reporting by telling them what cookies they encounter in their day-to-day internet use. Thanks to Mozilla’s Collusion add-on, users will be able to track the trackers and then hand over that data to the Guardian.

“Essentially what we’re saying is, ‘You tell us what cookies you receive over the period you use this tool and we will find out which are the most prevalent cookies,’” Katz said. “We will do the work of finding out what they are and what they do.”

This week the Guardian is publishing Battle for the Internet, a series that looks at the future of the Internet and the players involved, from the private sector to governments, militaries, and activists. Cookies have an new significance because of a regulation passed last year that requires sites based in the U.K. to inform users they are being watched.

Joanna Geary, the digital development editor for the Guardian, said the idea is to go deep on cookies — not just what they do, but the companies behind them, what happens to the information they collect, and how they connect various parts of the web. Geary said the Collusion tool was perfect for this project because it not only tracks the trackers, but it provides a helpful — if not scary — illustration of how cookies work across various sites. “The Guardian being what it is, and being conscious of our commitment to open journalism, it felt like this was the right project to get our readers involved in,” she said. As for the Guardian’s own self-examination, “I think it would be weird if we had undergone any sort of crowdsourcing project without doing it,” she said. “We have the responsibility of telling people what we use on our site ourselves.”

Asking the crowd for help is a regular part of the Guardian’s playbook, and because of that they’ve learned a bit about what works and what doesn’t. Katz said a big part of success in crowdsourcing it the ease of contributing to a given project, whether you are asking someone to look at a document for a few minutes or put a pin on a map. This project could prove a bit more tricky since it requires downloading a browser add-on (that only works on Firefox) and later exporting data to the Guardian.

But just as important as the ease-of-use question is the motivation, Katz said. “You have to tap into an issue people are relatively fired up about,” he said. “You can’t sort of create that sense of urgency unless people already feel it.” Katz said people need to not only feel like they are making a difference — they also have to see their work in action. Katz admits that not all of the Guardian’s crowdsourcing efforts have been as successful as they hoped, saying the responsibility for that lies with the paper “when we have not reflected that work back in an interesting way.”

Katz said the graphics team will work on visualizations from the cookie data to display findings from readers. But the ultimate fate of any further reporting rests in what the audience finds. Instead of reporting out what it sees as problem cookies, the paper is asking readers to show what trackers are a growing part of daily life online. “It’s a genuine sort of combined enterprise, that both sides are bringing something to the party,” he said. “In this case, you bring the data and we’ll do the reporting.”

Image from Danny Sullivan used under a Creative Commons license.

June 14 2011

04:28

The new EU cookie law and Facebook's "like", Twitter's "tweet" button - how to act?

Journalism.co.uk :: What is not to like about the buttons that drive traffic to your site from Facebook and Twitter? Quite a lot if you consider a study commissioned by the Wall Street Journal published in May.

Like’ and ‘tweet’ widgets, which appear on one third of the world’s 1,000 most-visited websites, enable Facebook and Twitter to track and follow the sites a user visits by dropping cookies – small text files placed on a user’s computer. New EU cookie law, which came into force in the UK on 26 May, requires websites to confirm they accept cookies before they can be dropped. So what is the legal position of websites that use ‘tweet’ and ‘like’ buttons, how should they act responsibly and can anything be done to stop this happening?

Published June 13, 2011

Continue to read Sarah Marshall, blogs.journalism.co.uk

04:21

When Facebook and Twitter follow you(r readers) without a click

Wall Street Journal :: Internet users tap Facebook Inc.'s "Like" and Twitter Inc.'s "Tweet" buttons to share content with friends. But these tools also let their makers collect data about the websites people are visiting. These so-called social widgets, which appear atop stories on news sites or alongside products on retail sites, notify Facebook and Twitter that a person visited those sites even when users don't click on the buttons, according to a study done for The Wall Street Journal.

Published May 18, 2011

Continue to read Amir Efrati | Geoffrey A. Fowler, online.wsj.com

July 31 2010

22:03

Cookie Madness!

I just don’t understand Julia Angwin’s scare story about cookies and ad targeting in the Wall Street Journal. That is, I don’t understand how the Journal could be so breathlessly naive, unsophisticated, and anachronistic about the basics of the modern media business. It is the Reefer Madness of the digital age: Oh my God, Mabel, they’re watching us!

If I were a conspiracy theorist — and I’m not, because I’ve found the world is rarely organized enough to conspire (and I found this to be especially true of News Corp. when I worked there, at TV Guide) — I’d imagine that the Journal ginned up this alleged exposé as a way to attack everyone else’s advertising business just as its parent company skulks behind its pay wall and surrenders its own ad business. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist. That’s why I’m confused.

The story uses the ominous passive voice of newspaper scare stories: “…a Wall Street Journal investigation has found…” As if this knowledge were hiding. Cookies have been around as long as the commercial browser, since October 1994. Or was that 1984?

The piece uses lots of scare words: “surveillance technology” … “tracking technology” … “intrusive” … “no warning” … “surreptitiously re-spawn” … “rich databases” … “so powerful and ubiquitous” … and my favorite: “targeted ads can get personal” (well, yeah, that’s the damned point).

The Journal acts as if it has discovered a conspiracy of its own: “Marketers are spying on Internet users — observing and remembering people’s clicks, and building and selling detailed dossiers of their activities and interests.” Gasp! Mabel, hide the kids, the Romans Huns Krauts Commies Marketers are coming!

There is absolutely nothing new — thus nothing newsworthy — in what the Journal promises threatens to be a series.

The Journal does measure its own cookies, finding its site moderate (I count 34 Journal cookies on my new Mac and I don’t use the site often) in what it ominously calls an “exposure index.” Mabel: Bring the Geiger counter!

Well, except the Journal is unique because unlike the other sites the story writes about, the Journal has my personally identifiable information! It has my friggin’ credit card number and name and address and phone number as well as my web behavior and it allows me to be tracked by third parties. The Journal has more information about me than ANY of the sites it warns about. And the Journal is owned by a company some people don’t trust. Hmmm.

It’s a fine thing that the Journal also tells readers how to “avoid prying eyes.” And if enough people do that, then the value of the advertising-supported web falls. Without cookies, the effectiveness and price of advertising would plummet as ads everywhere turn into remnant junk (smack the money), reducing revenue for media sites and reducing their content to junk. Hmmmm….

A story like this might also affect policy as the FTC is looking at regulating online advertising and marketing; its chairman, Jon Leibowitz testified before Congress on the topic this very week. Hmmm.

I think the Journal should have told exactly how it places and uses every one of its cookies and beacons and ominous tracking surveillance spying technology. It doesn’t. The story doesn’t even link to the paper’s privacy policy, which says that cookies and beacons and all that scary surveillance/tracking/spying technologies are used at WSJ.com and its affiliates and also by third parties over which the Journal has no control. Opportunity lost.

If I were an advertising-supported site, I’d be aggressively transparent. I’d tell you exactly what we track and what impact that has on what we serve in advertising and content. I’d create an app to read the cookies placed just for you and explain them. I’d give you the chance to correct information. I’d give you the chance to select your own advertising (now that would be valuable). I’d treat this with radical openness.

Otherwise the scare mongers like those regulation-loving, anticapitalist commies at News Corp. will win the day.

: Oh, and I neglected to point out that it was the very same Journal that had the wingnutty story about privacy and RFID tags on our pants, quoting as an expert a woman who thinks that RFIDs are — and I exaggerate not — the work of the devil. What the hell is happening there? Are they going out for drinks too often with their new neighbors at the Post?

: Oh and here’s more scaremongering from the commie Telegraph in London, which equates Wikileaks’ Julian Assange with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Man, we are in silly season.

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