We need a dimmer knob for behavioral tracking

Dimmer Knob
Credit: LEDLights4You

Once you have a dimmer switch for your dining room, odds are you’ll never want to go back to a simple on-off light switch.  Why would you want to choose between a brightness suitable for doing a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, or utter darkness?  No, you want to adjust the brightness (or dimness) to just the right level.  So why should I have to choose between all-on or all-off on the behavioral/demographic profile that companies build to target ads at me?

Right now there’s a movement to get companies observing the Do-Not-Track setting that exists in nearly all current web browsers — but it’s a black-and-white, all-or-nothing setting.  Either “No, don’t track me at all, in any way!” or “The sky’s the limit, track me all you want!”

Another thing about dimmer switches: they spend 99% of the time set to a medium level.  Low and high are seldom the best.  The same may be true for your profile tracking level.  While it’s not a good idea to let companies track everything about you, it’s also not in your best interest to turn tracking down to zero.  Ads, whether you like it or not, take up mental space no matter how much you attempt to tune them out (as research on “cognitive load” demonstrates), so you might as well have them bear a little relevance to what you do and to who you are.

But the industry is not going this direction.  The powers that be are fighting a zero-sum game, employing tactics that would unleash tracking to the legal max, or else shut it down wholesale. On the one hand, Do-Not-Track advocates, dismayed that the major Web companies are ignoring the opt-out setting in the browser, have turned to building their own plug-ins that forcibly shut-off of tracking.  Meanwhile, the advertising giants would prefer to have things stay the way they are, whereby there is impediment to user profiling for marketing purposes.  (They’re betting you’ll never take the time to install one of the aforementioned anti-tracking plug-ins.)

That’s an all-or-nothing game that might be settled in Congress some day.  But let’s look at what would be needed for a dimmer-knob approach to be effective:

  1. First, you’d need to have your browser maker build in an easily accessible control panel that lets you broaden or narrow the scope of user profiling (perhaps with check-boxes and a slider).  I might want to not be tracked in the evening, or not for more than 7 days, or not in certain categories (like personal health), nor not with geo-tracking that is more granular than the my State (e.g. California).
  2. Second, we’d want all the major browsers to default to a medium setting that is neither the minimum nor the maximum on the scale.
  3. Third and finally, we’d need the setting to be enforceable — if not by law, then by the browser makers themselves suppressing cookies from any third parties that fell short of compliance.  This means there would need to be an open database with blacklist/whitelist functionality, maintained by a neutral and trustworthy organization — most likely an academic institution.  The Stanford Cookie Clearing House would have been great, but due to a lack of support, that project has stopped.

There are serious attempts at all three of these today, but progress is slow.  Privacy Badger, a project of the EFF, is going in the right direction, but has a ways to go.  And the Mozilla Foundation is trying to help with their Polaris project. Just as importantly, anti-tracking tools are getting the attention of mainstream media (for example, there recently was a New York Times write-up on anti-tracking tools). I believe we’ll end up in the right place, eventually, but there are no guarantees.  Fingers crossed!

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