On User Tracking and Industry Standards on Privacy


Inspired by Eva PenzeyMoog’s new book, Jeremy highlights the widespread user tracking situation in this industry:

There was a line that really stood out to me:

The idea that it’s alright to do whatever unethical thing is currently the industry norm is widespread in tech, and dangerous.

It stood out to me because I had been thinking about certain practices that are widespread, accepted, and yet strike me as deeply problematic. These practices involve tracking users.

And ends with zero minced words:

We should stop stop tracking users because it’s wrong.

I take notice here, as I’m largely complicit when it comes to some degree of user tracking. For example, I have Google Analytics on this site. And pertinent to the topic: I have for well over a decade. I mention that not to prove that it’s OK, but almost to question it more, because it’s such a widespread long-term industry standard that is rarely questioned.

Because I have Google Analytics¹ on this site, I can take zoomed-out looks at the long-term traffic on this site. Here’s a 10-year period:

I realize that even this screenshot of a chart may be abhorrent to some, as it was collected from users who did not explicitly consent.

Or I can see how year-over-year mobile traffic on this site has gone down nearly 6%.

Weird.

I don’t send any personal information to Google Analytics. I don’t know who did what — I can only see anonymous aggregate data. Not only is it literally against Google policy to do so:

The Analytics terms of service, which all Analytics customers must adhere to, prohibits sending personally identifiable information (PII) to Analytics (such as names, social security numbers, email addresses, or any similar data), or data that permanently identifies a particular device.

… but I have a much clearer ethical line in my head there — that’s not something I’m comfortable with. Even when I’ve implemented user tracking that does tie a particular user to a particular action, it’s still anonymized such that it’s impossible for me to tell from using that tool who has done what.

But I understand that even this “anonymous” tracking is what is being questioned here. For example, just because what I send is anonymous, it doesn’t mean that attempts can’t be made to try to figure out exactly who is doing what by whoever has that data.

Switching the focus to email, I do use MailChimp to send the email newsletter on this site, and I haven’t done anything special with the settings to increase or decrease how much tracking happens when a newsletter is sent. As such, I can see data, like how many people I send to, how many open it, and how many clicks happened:

As I write this, I’m poking around in the reporting section to see what else I can see. Ughghk, guess what? I can literally see exactly who opened the email (by the person’s email address) and which links they clicked. I didn’t even realize that until now, but wow, that’s very super personally identifiable analytics information. I’m going to look into how I can turn that off because it does cross an ethical line for me.

There is also a brand new mini-war happening with email tracking (not the first, as I remember the uproar when Gmail started proxying images through their own servers, thus “breaking” the accuracy tracker pixel images). This time, it’s Apple doing more aggressive blocking, and companies like MailChimp having to tell customers it is going to mess with their analytics:

Apple Mail in macOS Monterey
Warning on the MailChimp reporting screen

I’m interested not just in the ethical concerns and my long-time complacency with industry norms, but also as someone who very literally sells advertising. I can tell you these things are true:

  • I have meetings about pricing where the decisions are based on the historical performance of what is being sold, meaning impressions and clicks.
  • The vast majority of first conversations between bag-of-money-holding advertisers and publishers like me, the very first questions I’m asked are about performance metrics.

That feels largely OK to me. When I go to the store to buy walnuts, I want to know how many walnuts I’m going to get for my dollar. I expect the store to price the walnuts based on normal economic factors, like how much they cost and the supply/demand for walnuts. The advertising buyers are the walnut buyers — they want to know what kind of performance an ad is likely to get for their dollar.

What if I said: I don’t know? I don’t know how many people see these ads. I don’t know how many people click these ads. I don’t know where they are from. I don’t know anything at all. And more, you aren’t allowed to know either. You can give me a URL to send them to, but it cannot have tracking params on it and we won’t be tracking the clicks on it.

Would I lose money? I gotta tell you readers: yes. In the short-term, anyway. It’s hard enough to land advertisers as it is. Coming off as standoffish and unwilling to tell them how many walnuts they are going to get for their dollar is going to make them roll their eyes and move on. Long-term, I bet it could be done. Tell advertisers (and the world) up front, very clearly, your stance on user tracking and how it means that you don’t have and won’t provide numbers via tracking. Lean on supply and demand entirely. Price spots at $X to start. If other people have interest in the spot, raise the price until it stops selling, lower the price if it does. I bet it could be done.

To be honest, I’m not ready to tip my apple cart yet. I have a mortgage. I have employees to pay. I absolutely do not have a war chest to dip into to ride out a major income shortage. If I lost most of my advertising income I would just… fail. Close up shop. Be forced to make other dramatic life changes to deal with it. And I just don’t want to. It doesn’t feel like rolling the dice, because that implies I might win big. But if I were to take a hardline stance with advertisers, telling them that I provide zero data, “winning big” is merely getting back to the baseline for me.


I write all this just to help me think about it. I don’t want to sound like I’m being defensive. If I come across that way, I’d blame my own inertia for following what have felt like industry standards for so long, and being indoctrinated that those practices are just fine. I don’t feel like I’m crossing major ethical boundaries at the moment, but I’d rather be someone who questions myself and takes action when appropriate rather than tying a bandana over my eyes.





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