Direct Line Blog

Social widgets tracking browsing behavior? Crazy.

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The always-developing, never-ending saga of consumers' “They're doing what?!” reaction to online data collection continued this week with The Wall Street Journal's report that Facebook, Twitter and Google can each track and aggregate members' browsing behavior on any site that contains their own share-enabling widgets, regardless of whether the user shares the page's content.

According to the article, none of the sites track individual users' habits. Facebook says it uses aggregated data to inform the type of ads a consumer sees when returning to the social network.

The research revealed that 33% of the most-visited 1,000 sites have Facebook widgets, while 25% and 20% use Twitter and Google Buzz widgets, respectively.

Facebook claims to keep the data on file for 90 days, while Twitter and Google each save it for less time.

Despite how invasive some consumers may find the behavior, it's a fundamental part of how the process works, Facebook says, just as geo-tracking is an important aspect of any location-based software's offering.

The Journal quoted Peter Eckersley, a senior technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation as saying, “Our reading habits online encompass everything we're thinking about, political and religious views, health and relationship problems. Do you want to have an invisible person peering over your shoulder as you walk through the library?"

Well, if I invite a few hundred friends to the library and use it as a platform to announce my favorite books, then yes, I probably will want someone looking over my shoulder as I walk through the bookstacks, pointing me toward other books I might enjoy. Did anyone ever ask the librarian not to look at the covers of books they were checking out? Or tell her to shut her mouth when she said “If you like this one, you might also enjoy…”

Maybe some people did do that, and if so, those folks can simply sign out of Facebook before browsing. Despite the social network's ubiquity and its not-so-subtle intention to make itself the destination for all things interactive, we're a long way away from rebranding Orwellian as Zuckerbergian.

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