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BLOG: Help, I'm being stalked by the BBC (and also online advertisers)

Dan Tynan | April 25, 2013
Web trackers are indeed following you -- though probably not as closely as one BBC reporter just did to me.

She also said this: "You can opt out of all behaviorally targeted ads with one click." As I pointed out in a recent blog post ("Why opt out is such a cop out"), Woolley's numbers are slightly off.

You can indeed opt out of 86 members of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) with a single click. If you want to opt out of the 480-odd members of the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) AdChoices program, however, it will take at least 271 clicks - and probably close to double that number. And you'll have to do that for every browser you use. That's not counting the 800+ tracking companies that aren't located in either database and may not offer any opt out at all.

2. In the BBC story, the EFF's Eckersley estimates that 5 to 10 percent of Internet ad revenue is related to online behavioral tracking - making the point that Web advertising doesn't need to collect your browsing history to support free content. The figures I've seen, courtesy of Abine's Sarah A. Downey, are closer to 15 percent, and those are just an estimate. The Interactive Advertising Bureau doesn't break out separate revenue figures for online behavioral advertising (OBA), but my guess is its significantly higher than that, and that OBA will very soon become the primary way ads are delivered.

3. I made sort of a misstatement myself near the end of the piece when I said "Here's the ironic part. You opt out of Web tracking cookies by setting a tracking cookie." Later I wondered, are these opt out cookies really also tracking cookies? Did I misspeak?

So I asked Rich Shay,  a fourth-year doctoral student in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, who's been doing research into cookies along with a team lead by Lorrie Faith Cranor.

The answer? Yes and no, says Shay.

"There is evidence that some NAI/DAA members continue to track users who have opted out, while some stop tracking. A number of NAI/DAA members explicitly state in their privacy policies that they do not track users who have opted out of online behavioral advertising. Some opt-out cookies have very generic values, meaning that those cookies would not be suitable for the purpose of tracking. Other opt-out cookies have what appear to be unique identifiers, meaning they would be suitable for tracking. Further, under the NAI/DAA's own rules, companies are allowed to continue to track users who have opted out."  

And there you have it. One day I'm an obscure privacy blogger, the next day I'm an international media superstar, and two days later I'm back to utter obscurity. Ah fame - so fickle, so fleeting.


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