I work in the digital advertising world, but I am also a big advocate of online privacy. Life if full of contradictions, right? Actually I believe these ideas can co-exist, but most people don’t know the options they have around online behavioral tracking. Here’s how to keep your online surfing behavior private if that’s what you want.
Opt out? Did you ever opt in?
Before we go into how you can update your browser to help protect your privacy, you might want to know why this situation exists in the first place.
The online advertising industry has evolved to an “opt-out” environment, meaning that unless you specifically say so, you will be tracked across the web and that data will be used to influence the advertising you see.
Why is this a system that you must opt-out of instead of one you opt-in to? Well, you’d probably so “no” if you were asked, right? “Can I follow you around and keep track of everything you do?” Of course not. If asked, presumably the majority of the world would say no as well and that would destroy the efficiencies that the web provides advertisers. It would result in less targeted and less relevant ad messages.
Most companies would like to reach only people who they think would likely buy their product. Why? It costs money to show each person an ad. (Each ad shown is called an “impression” in ad speak.)
Without the ability to track users and monitor their behavior, companies would need to spend more money to spread the word amongst the people they want to reach because they can’t place ads based on an individual’s surfing behavior. Instead, they would need to just blanket a bunch of sites they might think people like you would visit. That leaves companies paying for impressions they would rather not have paid for.
So the system has evolved to serve the people who spend money keeping the system propped up, the advertisers. By using the network of sites that is funded by advertising dollars, advertisers assume you are willing to part with some personal data to make it more efficient for them to run this whole business. There is a belief in the ad business that consumers prefer to see only relevant ads.
It’s all so logical, right? But still, even after it’s all laid out, what if you’d rather not be followed? Perhaps you want to research some personal issue that you’d rather keep to yourself. Do you have the right not to be tracked? The issue is heating up in the US recently. Read this article from the New York Times on the debate.
How to Opt Out
But now, here’s what you’ve been waiting for. The links below will take you to many of the advertising networks pages that allow you to opt-out of their various tracking programs. There are quite a few.
What you’ll be doing at the following sites is adding a special cookie to your browser that tells the ad network that you don’t want to be tracked. You must do this from every browser you use. If you erase your cookies regularly, you will also be erasing the cookies that tell them not to track you. You will need to reset them after that.
Here are the Opt Out pages of a variety of places:
- Network Advertising Initiative - Opt out from multiple ad networks from one place.
- Microsoft Live
- Facebook’s Internal Privacy Preferences
- Facebook’s External Privacy Preferences
- Facebook’s Advertising Privacy Preferences
As I write this, Business Week reports that opting out still leaves some tracking in place on the Yahoo network. Read the article for more information here.
There are stronger methods at protecting your privacy, but they can start to interfere with your experience at various web sites. There are ad blocking technologies readily available, but the ads do pay for many of the sites you visit, so blocking them altogether is viewed by some people as stealing content. My concern is your privacy and your ability to control when and what information you share about yourself. Got questions? Post a comment below.
Since posting this article, I found TrackMeNot, a Firefox extension that attempts to hide your data from tracking. Learn more about it here.