Saturday, January 08, 2005

Editorial: The Comment Ills does not engage in tracking visitors nor does it support the practice

Privacy is a primary concern to members of The Common Ills community.

As someone who worked in my area with our local Bill of Rights Defense Committee, I do understand that and I respect that. When members were uncomfortable with posts (either due to spam concerns or not wanting to have to register at a site to comment), we made e-mails the source of our interaction.

When the Times published a story on a Saturday (it was in December, I believe) about efforts to data mine by an organization hired by the ACLU, I noted that while I personally supported the ACLU, I opposed data mining. Your e-mails agreed that the ACLU needed to take a strong stand against tracking of their membership.

Thursday was a record day for e-mails to this site ( 397 of you shared your feelings on how the Ohio vote played out in Congress. I e-mailed and asked for permission to quote. I even e-mailed the ones who stated "Please quote me" in their original e-mail because of the fact that we were very passionate about what happened (for good reason) and I wanted to be sure that everyone stood by their statements after they had time to digest them.

A number of you didn't want to be quoted and that was fine. One of you responded that you felt you had wasted my time by weighing in and then deciding you didn't want to be quoted. That's not the case at all. What I wrote on Thursday was influenced by your reactions. It's never a problem to weigh in on something even if you don't want to be quoted, cited or mentioned. That's your call and it will be respected.

There were other e-mails on Thursday that didn't address Congress. One of them was from Molly. I wasn't focused on Thursday (no surprise there) and she got a reply that a few other people got as well which was basically: "I'm printing up your e-mail and deleting it. We've had so many weighing in on Congress today that I'm concentrating on that. But I will reply to your e-mail in a few days. Sorry for the delay. -- CI"

I read Molly's e-mail today and it was pretty important. A site that I had provided a link to was visited by Molly and as she read entries on the site, she discovered that the site tracked where you came from and where you went.

Molly's first question is do we track at The Common Ills. The answer is no. And I'll get back to that in moment.

Her second question was: "Is this standard policy?" I actually learned of it happening for the first time on Friday night/Saturday morning. (I was up all night. I hadn't been to sleep yet, so in my mind it was Friday night still.)

This may very well be standard policy. I don't know. I do feel is that if you're tracking visitors to your site, you should post a note stating that at the top of your site so that every visitor is aware that they are being tracked.

The issue of whatever two things the New York Times web site is trying to install when you visit has been one that has outraged many of you. (Thanks to whomever told me to install Spybot. It has allowed me to block the installations. Two other members have also e-mailed that they installed it as well.) That caused anger just over the fact that something (which might or might not have been spyware) was being installed without your knowledge (unless you utilized Spybot or some other software).

Tracking where you came from and where you're going may be a standard practice. I'm sure many corporations do it. Should a personal web site do so?

My personal opinion, I don't think they should. If they're going to, however, they should notify you at the top of the page that you are being tracked.

If Joanne Smith buys a teddy at Victoria's Secret and, unbeknownst to her, there's a device in the store's sack that allows them to know the next store that Joanne visits, I think she would be outraged. By the same token, I don't think anyone has the right to track someone's movements online without the visitor's knowledge.

Again, I'm sure some corporations due. And I'm sure the government does in some form. But a personal web site, one that wants you to visit, shouldn't be tracking your movements (my opinion).

Someone can argue that they are just gathering statistical information. I majored in the social sciences and we asked permission when gathering statistical information from someone.
What is statistical information to someone running a web site may be very personal information to the person visiting.

Let's say your a closeted John Denver fan and you visit a web site devoted to him daily. Is that the business of Generic Web Blog that you happened to visit earlier that day?

What if your someone struggling with your religion and you're visiting sites for that? Or if your a closeted gay or lesbian and you're visiting sites that reveal your sexuality? What if you're visiting porn sites and you don't want anyone to know that?

Generic Web Blog might shoot back, "I only know that you came to my site from ___ and that you then went on to ____ and ____."

After I read Molly's e-mail this morning, I went to work trying to educate myself on this issue.
A friend was kind enough to set up a meet- up with some web gurus in the UK. I thank them for their advice and for talking me through the realities of what's going on.

Your isp address can be tracked by some, but not all, programs that can track your web traffic. So Generic Web Blog may have access to your isp address. Your region and location may be revealed to Generic Web Blog as well.

That there is no privacy on the web was a point that stressed repeatedly. But we do have a right to expect that when we're going to non-corporate sites, people aren't tracking us without notifying us.

I'm not a computer expert but I was instructed to install Mozilla Firefox which, according to them, will offer more protection as a browser. I'd suggest that anyone concerned about privacy consider looking into Firefox and judging for themselves whether it's something they want to utilize or not. (Mozilla Firefox is a free download.) The only problem I've encountered since installing is that when importing my bookmarks from Explorer, it messed up the order. I can fix that (and will whenever I find the time). If someone has another program (or knows of flaws with Firefox) you can e-mail and we'll be happy to share what you know.

In addition to Firefox, GhostSurf Web Browsing was recommended. This is a program with a thirty day free trial but to keep it after that you have to pay around forty dollars. Those with the money to spare might want to consider looking into GhostSurf.

Molly's question about this site? We don't track you. I wouldn't know how. (Google runs and I wouldn't be surprised if they track in some way.) If you're e-mailing me that you are the ultimate goth or grunge or whatever music fan but you're secretely going to a John Denver site, rest assured, I have no way of knowing that.

The only thing I know is what you choose to share in e-mails. If you've gone to the blogger profile for this site -- don't bother, there's nothing there as most of you know already -- you are aware that each time that's visited, the number of views is recorded. No report on that is sent to me and, if I have access to anything other than the number of visits -- the same thing you see online at that page, my computer ignorance keeps me in the dark.

The UK gurus think we need to worry more about protecting our privacy and I agree with them.
Frank in Orlando feels I've gotten "snarky" in my comments about the Times in recent weeks.
I am offering more of my opinion (or Rob's or anyone that chooses to share). The reason for that is that a number of you have stated you're not visiting that site because of whatever program it is that Spybot reports the site's attempting to install.

If I do a pull quote, it's the section that I think is most important. That's my opinion and, when I make that call, I'm deciding with the knowledge that many of you are just reading what is getting pulled. Some articles are resulting in coverage that's my opinion (or a member like Rob's) of what the "use factor" of the story is or isn't. Opinions have increased (Frank in Orlando's correct, snarky or not is open to debate) because I know a number of you do not want to visit the Times now.

When I recommend something in the future (from any site), I'll try to provide you with enough information so that you have a snapshot of what it is in case you're not going to visit the site. But if you do visit, you're taking the same risk that someone in a work environment that closely regulates the language acceptable on the net takes when they leave this site to visit a linked page. In other words, you're on your own.

That shouldn't be the case. People should be posting if they are tracking -- at the top of their web page so that you know as soon as you pull up the site that you are being tracked. The site Molly e-mailed about did an entry on where visitors were coming from and apparently where you were going after. (I couldn't find the post on the site which is one reason we're not naming the site, the other reason is that this isn't about one person or one site, this is an ethical question.) Whether or not the person running that site has additional information, Molly didn't know.

But she knew enough that she was offended.

Back at the end of November, Jim began asking if we'd install a counter. I have enough trouble doing permalinks that I told Jim I knew nothing about how to install one and honestly didn't have the time to learn. We didn't install a counter. We won't install a counter now that I've spoken to the UK gurus.

I'm not interested in your web traffic or in tracking where you go after. (Or even in the curiosity factor of how many hits/visits we get.) If you choose to share something, that's fine. If you don't, that's fine too.

It's none of my business where you were before you came to the site or where you went after. Your isp address is none of my business. (And don't worry, if there's a way to pull it off your e-mails, I don't know how. Once again, my ignorance works in everyone's favor.) Your location is none of my business.

Your safe on this site from me. (Hopefully from Google as well but I can't speak for Google.)

As for other sites, that's beyond any control I have. So when you visit a site, you need to know that you may or may not be tracked. And the person running Generic Web Blog may not feel it's a big deal. But I'd argue that if they're tracking you, they need to notify you of that -- not in an entry that pops up occassionally but as soon as their site loads.

I kept saying today, "Maybe I'm just too far left, but the idea of someone watching me because I visited their site bothers me." It's not just me that's bothered by that or just Molly. And, again, the UK gurus think we need to be more concerned with this issue.

I realize that most people gathering the information from Generic Web Blog are just trying to figure out where their traffic is coming from. Whether you accept that argument as valid or not is up to you. For me, personally, it's not a valid argument.

We're members here, not readers. We all participate. So maybe we're different from some sites. But if this was a site that only allowed you to post replies, I'd still say it wasn't valid. In that instance, I'm wanting your traffic, I'm wanting you to visit, and I'm tracking you, but I'm not notifying you of that?

I subscribe to a number of publications and, from time to time, I get a survey asking how I learned of the publication. I'm happy to answer that question. But it's asked of me. There's a difference between asking me to volunteer information (and I can refuse any request) and just collecting that information without informing me.

While in college, I worked at a dry cleaners. (For those keeping track, I've now mentioned working at libraries (two), a Church day care and tonight a dry cleaners. That's not the end of the list my jobs while getting my degrees.) There was a woman who was just determined to know my middle name. (It's nothing embarrassing and, sadly, very common now. Sadly because it was more unique awhile back.)

It may have been her second day when she asked for that information. I didn't know her, I didn't work near her, and I didn't like her attitude. I certainly wasn't going to share my information with her. She stormed off in a huff saying she'd find out with or without me. (I have no idea why she was that inquisitive. She was fired a few weeks later for what we'll politely call "data mining" of customers.)

So Nosy Parker next comes up to me to say that her boyfriend is a police officer and she wrote down the plates on my car and would soon have that important information (my middle
name). My car was being fixed that week (actually was fixed, I was just waiting for payday
to be able to get it back) and I knew her information would be on the friend who'd loaned me
the car. I did tell her that I believed it was some sort of violation for her to utilize her
boyfriend to look up personal information on people she knew.

Nosy Parker shows up next when she's upset that it wasn't my car. (I hadn't told her that, it was none of her business.) But she knows I live in that city so she's going to find it that way (again, via her boyfriend looking it up). No luck for Nosy Parker because I hadn't updated my license since I'd moved into the city.

As irritating as Nosy Parker was, at least I knew she was trying to gather information about me. (Why, I have no idea.) She was very vocal about it. If someone's tracking you when you visit their site, they need to be telling you that (my opinion).

Again, someone might argue, "It's just statistical information." So is trailing me as I walk through my neighborhood, but I'd want to know if someone was doing that as well.

Molly had named the site and I didn't want to name it here. (Molly agreed to that.) The reason for that? This is apparently very common. Highlighting one individual makes it about one individual. I'd argue this is an ethical question and needs to be addressed in that manner.

If you feel there's nothing wrong with tracking site visitors, then you should have no problem posting a warning somewhere at the top of your site.

Someone may not currently post a warning because the practice is so common. "Everyone does it." Again, that's why we aren't going to make this about one site. According to the UK gurus, it is quite common. Gurus everywhere may be aware of it. I'm not. I'm a computer idiot. I go to the sites I go to for news and information. I expected that since I'm not tracking the visits of someone running a site, they're not tracking mine as a visitor.

That may not be the case. If it's not, I think it's incumbent upon a site to notify you that they are going to track you.

There may be a solid justification to be made for tracking. But if your a blogger, and you track the visitors to your site via some program, you should be willing to post on your site that you do that. Not everyone is going to agree that it's okay to track them. People should be warned if tracking is going to take place.

I'm not attempting to embarrass anyone here. I'm trying to raise an ethical issue.

I will note that A Winding Road ( does not track. That blog was started by a member of this community. (So of course it's a great blog and one you should check out daily!) Because they are a member of our community and they are now running a web site, I did contact them to see if they were tracking. They aren't. They're surprised that any blogger would be tracking. No one should have to be surprised (my opinion). If someone's tracking, they should declare it prominently on their web site (again, my opinion).