James Butler's Blog

HTML5 Data Storage No-No

September 09, 2010 08:27

recent article from ARSTechnica calls attention to a company called Ringleader Digital and its practice of using Apple devices' internal database storage system to hold tracking identifiers.

This practice not only evades normal user tracking identifier management (cookie management), it also prevents complete removal of the tracking identifiers because RingleaderDigital can't keep their hands off your database.

It is the position of this blog entry that RingleaderDigital's practice (and any other company that engages in opt-OUT practices) is completely unethical, and I will try to make an argument for outlawing opt-OUT schemes.

To begin, there are basically two ways to get on a list: Registering with the list owners by indicating your interest, or by being placed on the list without your consent.

The first method, where YOU choose which lists you would like to be included in, is called "opt-in". You need to take the "option" to get "in".

The second method, where the marketing firm (or whomever) places you on a list, is called "opt-out". You need to take the "option" to get "out".

By assuming that everyone they can find needs to be on their list, RingleaderDigital is making a business decision. Their business is providing web browsing data to advertisers. Therefore, they need to collect web browsing data in order to sell it. If nobody participates in their enterprise, it is dead. Since their service is unproven, and frankly not at all valuable to those on their lists, nobody would willingly sign up with them to be tracked. Therefore the have chosen to secretly add people to their marketing list in order to have data to sell.

To accomplish this, they have decided that everyone who visits certain websites (operated by advertisers who buy their data) will be included automatically, silently and secretly into their list. They then place certain information in YOUR computer's database that contains their tracking data. That, in itself, should be illegal, but at the very least it is definitely unethical, as website visitors do not expect or appreciate having their database manipulated and their surfing data monitored by a company they have no idea about.

The company argues that by collecting the data (what you PAY), they deliver a more relevant advertising experience to the user (what you GET).

In my opinion, they owe me. What I am getting is nowhere near as valuable as what I am paying, and I want a full refund!

It gets more sticky when the practice of "drive by inclusion" is combined with Apple's database storage mechanism.

Not only have you been "tagged" and followed as you flit from website to website, but if you try to remove the tracking mechanism from your own computer, RingleaderDigital puts it right back the next time you stumble across one of their advertisers' websites.

They say you can "opt-out" of their system by sending them notice. However they STILL must maintain their tracking mechanism, because without it, they claim that they don't know who has opted-out!

Their Position, Simply: We can't tell if you opted-out if we don't know who you are. 

My Position, Simply: If I'm not in your list already, you don't get to know me.

Instead of forcing unsuspecting web visitors to harden their systems against this unethical behavior, the legal standard should be opt-IN only ... if your service is so great, then people will WANT to join you. As it stands, however, the service they provide to you in exchange for the use of your web visiting data is a poor deal ... they are getting a LOT more from invading your privacy than they are giving back to you.

To sum up, it is my position that this is prime territory for the government to step in and regulate this unethical behavior. Americans need to know that simply visiting a website will not mark them for life, and allow some unscrupulous third-party to monitor wherever you go online, just so they can sell some advertising. 

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