It is not news that there are a lot of companies, and maybe a few governments, tracking your every move on the Internet. But most people have not yet internalised just how pervasive and detailed the tracking is.
A series of front-page articles in the Wall Street Journal will help raise the level of awareness among the general public and, more importantly, among policy makers in Congress and the federal regulatory agencies.
This is an issue because the third party companies have agreements with lots of websites, and there are lots of these third party companies, so they can track you between websites. For example, if you visit the website of one automaker then go the another automaker's website, a third party company can see what you did on both sites and use that information to understand more about you. The third party companies then sell information about your activities to advertising companies so that you will see ads better designed to get you to buy something.
This may not seem like a big deal, but note that some of these third party companies have arrangements with thousands of websites and, thus, can find out a lot of about you, a lot more than just likes and dislikes: sex, age, income, political views and so on.
The Journal is not the first to talk about the issue. For example, I saw quite a good presentation by AT&T researcher Balachander Krishnamurthy during the IETF meeting in Anaheim. And there is a
lot more information on the researcher's home page. But the Journal articles will bring new exposure to the issue.
You can protect yourself from some tracking by setting up your browser to not accept third party cookies and to erase cookies when you exit from the browser, both are easy to do in Firefox and Safari (I'm not an IE user so do not know how easy it is to do there, but the Journal reported on August 2 that the Microsoft powers-that-be killed a plan by Microsoft engineers to block the tracking by default). Microsoft was more than a bit conflicted since it just bought a company that sells ads and can benefit from such tracking.
Even if you set your browser to delete cookies you may not be safe since a number of companies are overriding your preferences using Adobe Flash cookies. This underhanded behavior is now the subject of a lawsuit.
Very few of us pay money to the websites we visit on the Internet. To us, most websites seem free. There are a few that people pay for (for example I pay for a subscription to the online Wall Street Journal), but to date most experiments wherein a website puts up a "paywall" that demands money before you can enter have failed. Operators need to have some reason for maintaining their websites. The reason can be pride (e.g. http://www.scottbradner.com), or sales (http://www.sears.com/), customer service (http://www.cisco.com/cisco/web/support/index.html) or part of a wider mission (http://lib.harvard.edu/). But in many cases, just like with "free" TV, there is real money involved, money from advertisers.
Google is not being altruistic in not charging you to use its search engines.
But there is a trade-off. There is a point where these folks know just too much about us and we know nothing about them. I understand that someone has to pay for my "free" use of the Internet but I'd rather the price not be such an intrusive look into my soul.
Disclaimer: Some parts of Harvard have used Google Analytics, one of these third party companies, but I know of no University opinion on selling souls in exchange for a little content, so the above lament is my own.