Pushing Back Against Privacy Infringement On The Web

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Robin Berjon is Vice President of Data Governance at The New York Times, working on improving privacy, on data management, and on making sure that the Web can … More about Robin ↬

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Quick summary ↬ The Web is still wrestling with issues we take for granted offline, privacy chief among them. These are steps The New York Times took to protect users’ data, and how you can too.

At the ripe old age of 25,

That free widget to make it easy to share pages on social media? It’s probably a data broker. That comments system you can drop at the bottom of your blog? You might want to check that it’s not selling your users’ data. It’s not uncommon for a third party to strike deals with other third parties so that when you add one to your site it will inject the others as well, a practice known as piggybacking. It’s a good idea to run your site through a tool like Blacklight now and then to make sure that nothing surprising is going on (though if you run ads there will only be so much you can do, sadly).

Google note asking for key points of Google’s Privacy Policy to be reviewed
Just because your site visitors won’t read the fine print doesn’t mean you shouldn’t either.

Finally, you of course want to be thinking about your users, but you should also be thinking about yourself! The business implications of sending your audience data to third parties are often poorly understood and are too rarely taken into account. Understanding your users, your readers, your customers is a key business asset. When you share your audience data with third parties, they benefit from that too — and they can use that data to compete with you.

If you run a shoe store and let a social network track your users so you can target ads to them there later, know that that data, which reveals who is interested in shoes, will also be used to show them shoe ads for your competitors.

If you host your e-commerce pages on a virtual strip mall owned by a company that also runs its own online shopping business, how long will it be before they use what they learn from your customers to outcompete you?

And How About We Fixed The Web, Too?

As a community, we can each work to improve our own little corners of the Web. But, collectively, we can do better. We can improve the Web and make it a better platform for privacy.

Perhaps the most important property of the Web is trust. You can browse around freely from site to site because you can trust that your browser will protect your security and that, even as those sites run code on your computer, they won’t endanger it. That is a strong promise, much stronger than what you can expect from native platforms, but when it comes to privacy it’s a promise that we have broken. As you browse freely from site to site, your privacy is not in trustworthy hands.

Still, things are looking up. Most browsers have delivered excellent work towards preventing tracking on the Web, and the biggest holdout, Chrome, has promised change in 2023. Projects like the covers that issue very well.

  • Woodrow Hartzog and Neil Richards have written so many excellent articles on privacy that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I would suggest as a great place to start. Don’t be daunted by the “law” part, it’s really about trust.
  • Looking at a broader issue, Re-Engineering Humanity, by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger, is a great description of how we can misuse technology to shape people against their interests.
  • More on the advertising side, Subprime Attention Crisis by Tim Hwang explains why we should worry about online advertising and the businesses it supports.
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