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Twitter Takes Privacy High Road

Twitter Takes Privacy High Road

Twitter has agreed to stop tracking users who activate the Do Not Track feature in the Firefox browser, to the applause of privacy advocates. However, that concession may not be as difficult for Twitter to make than it would be for Facebook, which so far has resisted giving users the Do Not Track option. For one thing, it is not likely to have a negative impact on Twitter's ad revenue.

By Erika Morphy E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
05/17/12 3:47 PM PT

Twitter has made an important overture to privacy advocates: It is giving users the ability to opt out of being tracked on the service by enabling the Do Not Track feature in the Firefox browser.

Ed Felten, chief technology officer for the Federal Trade Commission, broke the news at an industry event Thursday morning in New York. The company later confirmed it in a message on Twitter.

A Significant and Prescient Move

It is a significant move for Twitter, because tracking users with persistent cookies is controversial, ESET Security Evangelist Stephen Cobb told the E-Commerce Times.

Honoring the Do Not Track browser setting means Twitter will no longer use persistent cookies to track where its users go on the Web, he explained.

This is a prescient move on Twitter's part, Cobb added, because tracking is on the cusp of following the same trajectory that spam did a decade ago.

"Back at the turn of the century, brand name companies were sending a lot of spam -- it was just too tempting for marketing departments to resist. Consumers objected and, through a combination of market forces and regulation, spam has been replaced by opt-in email."

Today spamming is frowned upon in respectable marketing circles, Cobb said, and he is betting that the same development will occur with tracking.

"If that happens, Twitter will look like a privacy leader, and there is value in that," he noted.

An Unfavorable and Unfair Comparison

Twitter's news comes on the eve of the huge IPO of Facebook -- a company that can count concerns about its privacy policies as one of its weak spots.

However, holding up Twitter as an icon of privacy excellence and then comparing it unfavorably with Facebook is not exactly fair.

"Facebook and Twitter aren't really thought of in the same ways in terms of privacy," Jeremy Littau, an assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University, told the E-Commerce Times.

"Facebook has had enormous struggles in this area," he said, "with complicated mazes of user agreements and privacy controls, and has come under fire more than once for its behavior" -- such as for rolling back user control over areas that once were considered private.

By contrast, Twitter has two factors in its favor: One, it has a simple privacy control of public or not public, with some safeguards in place such as disabling the retweet button. Two, the early days of the network established that it was a public medium or broadcast channel.

Won't Hurt Twitter Ads

Also, Twitter's approach to advertising is very different from Facebook's, which makes it easy for Twitter to take the "high road" on privacy. In short, Littau said, adopting Do Not Track will not impact its ad revenue.

For starters, Twitter's ad revenue is scant compared to Facebook, and its ads don't need tracking.

"Some end up in trending searches, so the delivery is based on a user operation -- by searching for a term or hashtag -- while others are promoted and don't need user data," Littau explained. "Finally, ads are delivered to you based on your tweets and actions internal to Twitter itself; the service isn't relying on data about how you surf the Web in general."

Ads in Facebook, on the other hand, are based more on prediction than action and require Facebook's engine to combine past and present behavior, he noted. Then Facebook brings tracking into the mix because it needs the non-Facebook data.

"Zuckerberg talks about the predictive accuracy of the Facebook ad-delivery engine, and it's about twice the accuracy of what others are doing. So the data is extremely valuable to Facebook," said Littau.

Another point to consider is that this is not a foolproof private protection measure, warned Dennis Dayman, chief privacy and security officer at Eloqua.

"The user has to adopt the Do Not Track option," he told the E-Commerce Times. More importantly, websites have to recognize it and follow the policy."


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