It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. But the year’s 2012, not 1984, and, as the time flickers on your PC screen, the world’s advertisers are waiting to see which website you’ll visit next.
Ok, maybe not the world’s advertisers, but enough of them to make a difference to your experience of online.
Internet advertising is already big business. And although many advertisers still use the strategy of ‘if you throw enough mud at the wall, some of it will stick’, they can also track which websites you’re visiting, build a profile of your interests and target you with bespoke ads tailored to your tastes.
Is anything private online?
None of this is new. Google’s long been gathering data about you, and Twitter recently sold two years’ worth of tweets to Datasift, a data firm that will mine the content and sell any useful information to advertisers.
But just as speed guns and speed gun detectors (and speed gun detector detectors…) became embroiled in a seemingly infinite regress, so too may the watcher-versus-the-watched of online monitoring.
Mozilla’s Collusion Firefox add-on
Mozilla is developing an add-on for its Firefox web browser that shows which advertising networks are watching as you browse the internet. ‘Collusion’ records the sites you’ve visited and lets you know of any others that knew you were there. On-screen arrows then show you the companies who are getting information about you, where they’re getting it from and whether they’re sharing this data between them.
Collusion’s still in development and so not 100% accurate, but it gives a taste of what’s going on behind-the-scenes while we unwittingly click away.
Yet, does it really matter if other companies are watching you, and does knowing that they are have any impact on what you do online? We’re all familiar with online ads and are happy to ignore them, so will making them more relevant really change anything? I suppose if you know about them tracking you, you can opt-out – but is this as easy to do as it should be?
How the data’s used will be key to all this. If weak emotional states or personal tragedies are detected in emails and exploited by predatory marketers, that would add an uncomfortable dimension.
But might targeted ads actually enrich our online experience by providing content that’s relevant to us? Perhaps this is a small price to pay for an otherwise transaction-free service; the flip side of not having to pay for Google is that you become a marketable product in your own right and carry a price on your head…