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Thursday, December 2, 2010


The Federal Trade Commission has endorsed a plan that would allow consumers to "opt out" of being tracked during their browsing sessions. While internet users do have this capability now, many less-computer-savvy folks have trouble adjusting their privacy settings to turn off tracking. Hell, considering the steps outlined in the article, we suspect some relatively advanced users might have difficulty. The FTC's recommendation calls for the creation of something akin to the "Do Not Call" registry that allowed people to opt out of telephone solicitations: A simple, user-friendly mechanism that would enable people to choose not to have their internet movements tracked.

We consider privacy a good thing but wonder about unintended consequences. After all, many for-profit websites make money from advertisers, rather than by charging users fees to access their site. Thus, The New York Times provides free access to this article about opting out of internet tracking by selling space on the article to Ally Bank and JetBlue. Now, in theory, these ads would retain whatever value they currently have to the advertisers, who could of course continue advertising on the Times or any other site.

We assume, though, that many sites (we don't know about the Times specifically) make money by selling access to their users' browsing habits. Companies that buy this access compile information about these habits and then sell this information to others who use the data to market products more strategically.

That this is creepy goes without saying. That it provides a revenue stream to currently free websites and services makes us wonder what will happen when people start opting out. On the one hand, the ability to data mine may become less valuable as the amount of data decreases; on the other hand, whichever people choose NOT to opt out and thus remain in the "data pool" are presumably the most receptive (or naive) advertising targets--and correspondingly would be the most valuable people to reach.


Full disclosure: The Solipsist HAS sold access to this website's followers to various marketers, in case you wondered why you all kept receiving solicitations from NAMBLA.

(Image from BuzzFeed)

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