Web Privacy Census
10 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2014
Date Written: June 1, 2012
Public policymakers are proposing measures to give consumers more privacy rights online. These measures are based upon the assumption that the web privacy landscape has become worse for consumers; that their online activities are tracked more pervasively now than they were in the past. This assumption may be true, as online advertising and metrics companies have developed more sophisticated ways to track and identify individuals online. This has been substantiated in the academic literature, and in the popular press through an influential news series, "What they Know," by Wall Street Journal reporters.
As policymakers consider different approaches for addressing internet privacy, it is critical to understand how interventions such as negative press attention, self-regulation, Federal Trade Commission enforcement actions, and direct regulation affect tracking. As early as 1995, Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse suggested that federal agencies create benchmarks for online privacy. The first attempts of web measurement, discussed in our literature review, found relatively little tracking online in 1997 -- only 23 of the most popular websites were using cookies on their homepages. But within a few years, tracking for network advertising was present on many websites, and by 2011, all of the most popular websites employed cookies.
The Web Privacy Census is intended to formalize the benchmarking process and measure internet tracking consistently over time. We seek to explore:
How many entities are tracking users online?
What vectors (technologies) are most popular for tracking users?
Is there displacement (i.e. a shift from one tracking technology to another) in tracking practices?
Is there greater concentration of tracking companies online?
What entities have the greatest potential for online tracking and why?
Our literature review discusses this project and its context more fully. Key to this project is our methods, which we apply consistently over time.
Keywords: web tracking, privacy, cookies, flash cookies, LSOs, HTML5 cookies
JEL Classification: D18
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation