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Reddit Abandons Do Not Track – But Never Really Embraced It

Reddit today announced that they are changing their privacy policy and ‘phasing out Do Not Track’. This is sad, but their approach to DNT was so toothless that it isn’t much of a material blow, but it is a loss on the level of public discourse. It is instructive, however, to see the owners of the purported grassroots internet line up behind the rhetoric and misrepresentations used by the ad industry to disparage Do Not Track.

Let me be clear though, it is absolutely the case that enabling DNT in your browser does not currently provide almost any protection from online tracking. If you want protection use a tracker blocker. That’s because DNT is simply a message, transmitted in the headers of your web requests, it is a signal that the user does not want to be tracked but leaves it to the recipient server to decide whether to honour that request or not. DNT is not a self-enforcing mechanism, neither a shield nor a sword. The publishing and advertising industry has largely decided that it is in its interests to ignore it. But by refusing to voluntarily respect DNT, they leave users with no option but to defend themselves through the installation of tracker blockers or the use of browser with built-in tracking protection such as Brave, Opera and Firefox (in the case of the latter two this must be enabled by the user). Of course once they do that and block all the ads (which track users) they are attacked by the industry’s representatives as thieves, ingrates who have refused to keep their side of an imagined bargain (‘we give you content, you look at our ads’).

Back to Reddit. Let’s parse their statement today:

“We’re making some changes to our Privacy Policy. Specifically, we’re phasing out Do Not Track, which isn’t supported by all browsers,

False. On the desktop, DNT is supported by all major browsers, Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Safari.

doesn’t work on mobile,

False. On mobile DNT is supported by Safari on iOS, Chrome and Firefox on Android. Apps pose another challenge but that’s a different matter.

and is implemented by few—if any—advertisers,

Advertisers will only support DNT when there is the Adtech there to enable it – this in turn requires demand from publishers. Once the demand exists there is an incentive for the emergence of a structure to support ads functioning on a basis other than surveillance, for example through the refinement of methods for contextual placement. Did Reddit ever attempt to seed the market for such ads? Not that I know. Even though one of their adtech suppliers was capable of providing them with DNT compliant service.

and replacing it with our own privacy controls. DNT is a nice idea, but without buy-in from the entire ecosystem, its impact is limited. In place of DNT, we’re adding in new, more granular privacy controls that give you control over how Reddit uses any data we collect about you. This applies to data we collect both on and off Reddit (some of which ad blockers don’t catch). The information we collect allows us to serve you both more relevant content and ads. While there is a tension between privacy and personalization, we will continue to be upfront with you about what we collect and give you mechanisms to opt out. Changes go into effect in 30 days.”

Blah blah blah. This is industry boilerplate.

The ‘privacy controls’ and discredited ‘Ad choices’ program are really methods to keep users inside the tracking corral, exhausting their precious privacy budget. People generally have a limited amount of time/attention to invest in protecting themselves online; if doing so is overly complex, involved, or of doubtful efficacy, users will be deterred from taking action.

These schemes are an alibi for the everyday data dragnet conducted by these companies, not as a real opt-out. People do not have the time to manage each individual site nor can they penetrate opaque corporate data practices. Users want to fire and forget, and DNT’s greatest virtue is that it is a simple one-time setting that sends the same message to every web-site every time – it comes in under the privacy budget.

This has been a short ride; Reddit announced their limited support for DNT in a low key manner in November 2015. Weirdly, an examination of their privacy policy revisions shows that they actually dumped DNT in November 2016. During that year the only actual difference in treatment for DNT users was that third party trackers were not loaded on the pages they viewed. What the formal abandonment of the policy means, presumably, is that information about subreddit use will henceforth be available to advertisers in some form, and third party trackers will be used to connect your use of reddit with visits to other sites within those trackers reach.

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July 31, 2017 Posted by | / | Leave a comment