Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Web Tracking

True or False: Opting out of tracking ads is an easy one-step process

FALSE

If you really want to become invisible to Web trackers, you've got your work cut out for you. You can opt out of tracking ads from most of the major networks via the Network Advertising Initiative site. But in other cases you'll have to visit the advertising network's site to opt out. And those opt outs are browser and machine specific. If you use multiple browsers or surf the Net using more than one device, you'll have to repeat the process all over again each time.

And -- here's the fun part -- even then many ad networks will continue to collect information about your browsing habits for a variety of reasons, including simply the fact that their cookies already collect this information and they can't be bothered to change them. They'll simply stop sending you ads based on the information they collect.

A better idea is to install software that identifies tracking cookies and helps you delete them, such as Evidon's Ghostery browser add-on or even Symantec's Internet Security suite.

True or False: Without web tracking, advertising revenue will dry up and the "free" Internet will disappear.

FALSE

That's certainly the mantra of the online ad industry. The reality is that only a relatively small percentage of Web ads are targeted, yet the Net advertising industry is looking at record breaking revenues of $30 billion this year and is growing by double digits annually. Remember: The TV, radio, and print publishing industries don't target ads (though they would if they could), and they haven't disappeared -- yet.

However, targeted ads are what many companies are banking on to make ads more efficient. Advertisers live in fear that if users are given the option to choose between tracking and not tracking, they'll pick the latter -- depriving ad networks of the data they need to target ads effectively, and the revenue associated with that.

Also, I don't know about you, but I pay well over a thousand dollars a year for Internet access at home, work, and on mobile devices. So that whole "the Internet will cease to be free" argument kind of irritates me.

True or False: A Do Not Track law will make the Web a safer place to surf.

MAYBE

The fact is, the difference between being tracked and not being tracked will likely be completely invisible to 99 percent of consumers. Nobody really knows what harm online tracking could cause. But as mobile ads take off and location data gets factored into the mix, it raises all kinds of privacy questions -- like whether tracking data can be linked to people's identities, and what other things this data could be used for besides advertising.

The answers to those questions? Your guess is as good as anyone's. Which is why it's so important to talk about the implications of Web tracking now, before it becomes so entrenched it's impossible to avoid.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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