Lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe are pushing Internet services to make it easier for users to opt out of tracking, but this throws up more questions than answers, writes Karthik Subramanian

Privacy is a funny thing. It is fun to read personal gossip about some celebrity but when it comes to our own privacy, we try to guard it by all means. According to a study conducted by Norton Security in India in February, a majority of online users voted against compromising their online privacy against even the lure of US $ 1 million in return.

Maybe we are very concerned about our privacy. But are we aware of what happens online?

Easier options?

Lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe are pushing Internet services to provide easier options for users to opt out of ‘tracking' while browsing the Web. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is getting these services to offer simpler and more visible ‘do not track' options for users. Yahoo! recently announced that it would provide the option across its offerings. Apple has started rejecting apps that try to access the UDID (unique id) on its mobile services.

And it is not just the big players. Last week, a popular journaling App Path, available on the iOS mobile platform, apologised to all its users after it was revealed that it had been transferring data from its users' address books to its servers without explicit permission.

While the ‘do not track' option on website sounds similar to the ‘do not disturb' registry of telecom companies, it is, in fact, a lot more serious because a lot of things happen in the background of most Web-based apps. Tracking is the linchpin on which online business revolves, and it facilitates targeted advertising. Now, if users decide to opt out of tracking, new questions arise — whether at all web services will have enough advertising leverage to run the show free-of-cost for its users.

Lost in fine print

Unfortunately, one of the most overlooked aspects of web services is the fine print that most of us don't read while signing up for services. Most services, if not all, disclose that there are analytics companies tracking user behaviour on their website to help them find targeted advertising. The entire process happens so fast that to the user it appears nearly real-time and without lag. All websites use cookies to track user behaviour.

Targeted advertising has led to increased online advertisement revenues, and created a win-win situation for all. In the U.S. alone, online advertisement revenue in the first half of 2011 was close to US $ 15 billion.

Reactions to the recent initiatives have had the Internet advertisement lobbyists up in arms. One analyst from Europe has been quoted as saying “there is no way websites will survive without targeting”.

While there is no argument about the importance of tracking in the context of online advertisements, lawmakers are just asking for the Internet services to make transparent just what information is being shared by users. Their argument is that currently most users are unaware of just how their information is being tracked.

User choice

It is likely that in future, the choice will boil down to whether users prefer constant reminders to what is happening when they access the Web.

And also on whether the advertisement companies and Web services are able to find the right balance, rather than wanting everything they can get out of the users.

Opera launches ‘privacy-friendly' tracking

Opera Software, makers of the popular Web browser, has launched ‘App-Tribute', a service through AdMarvel network for mobile platforms that allows “mobile publishers and advertisers to receive critical marketing and analytics data without taking sensitive data elements such as unique device identifiers, cookies or MAC addresses”.

A press release from the software company said App-Tribute was available for iOS and Android devices. “Since the launch of iOS in 2007 and Android in 2009, we've watched both sides of the industry — both developers who want to advertise their apps and those that want to monetize their app traffic — struggle with the thorny issue of promoting and tracking app downloads. We've seen schemes that attempted to solve the problem through device and user tracking, many of which raise troubling questions around accuracy and consumer privacy,” the press note quoted Mahi de Silva, EVP of Consumer Mobile at Opera Software. “Working together with several of our industry-leading publisher customers, we've designed and implemented a trusted third-party solution that satisfies all the constituents.”