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The price of free Internet: a piece of your soul
By: Scott Bradner
It is not new news that there are a lot of companies, and maybe a few governments, tracking your every move on the Internet, but most people have not yet internalized just how pervasive and detailed the tracking is. A series of front page articles (http://online.wsj.com/public/page/what-they-know-digital-privacy.html) being run in the Wall Street Journal will help raise the level of awareness among the general public and, more importantly, among policy makers in Congress and the federal regulatory agencies.
The Journal is not the first to talk about the issue. I saw a quite good presentation by AT&T researcher Balachander Krishnamurthy during the IETF meeting in Anaheim last March. (http://www.ietf.org/proceedings/77/slides/plenaryt-5.pdf) There is a lot more information on the researcher's home page. (http://www2.research.att.com/~bala/papers/) But the Journal articles will bring new exposure to the issue.
You can protect yourself from some of the tracking by setting up your browser to not accept third party cookies and to erase cookies when you exit from the browser -- both are easy to do in Firefox and Safari, I'm not an IE user so do not know how easy it is to do there but the Journal reported on Aug. 2nd that the Microsoft powers that be killed a plan by Microsoft engineers to block the tracking by default. Microsoft was more than a bit conflicted since they just bought a company that sells adds and can benefit from such tracking.
Even if you set your browser to delete cookies you may not be safe since a number of companies are overriding your preferences using Adobe Flash cookies. (http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2009/08/flash_cookies.html) This underhanded behavior is now the subject of a lawsuit (http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/07/zombie-cookies-lawsuit/)
Very few of us pay money to the websites we visit on the Internet. To us, most websites seems free. There are a few that people pay for, for example I pay for a subscription to the on-line Wall Street Journal, but, to date, most experiments wherein a website puts up a "paywall" that demands money before you can enter have failed. Website operators need to have some reason for maintaining the website. The reason can be pride (e.g. http://www.scottbradner.com), or sales (http://www.sears.com/), customer service (http://www.cisco.com/cisco/web/support/index.html) or part of a wider mission (http://lib.harvard.edu/). But in many cases, just like with "free" TV, there is real money involved - money from advertisers. Google is not being altruistic in not charging you to use its search engines.
But there is a tradeoff, there is a point where these folks know just too much about us and we know nothing about them. I understand that someone has to pay for my "free" use of the Internet but I'd rather the price not be such an intrusive look into my soul.
disclaimer: Some parts of Harvard have used Google Analytics, one of these third party companies, but I know of no University opinion on selling souls in exchange for a little content so the above lament is my own.