Targeted advertising divides internet users into two camps: Those who like the idea of getting relevant advertising, and those who don’t appreciate having their internet movements being tracked and recorded. However, after the initial shock back in 2005, targeted advertising and/or behavioral marketing seemed to drop off everyone’s radar.

That is until September 2015 when Apple announced that iOS 9 would allow ad-blocking apps. “Apple’s move brings content blocking (and tracking) to casual consumers,” states TechRepublic contributing writer Andy Wolber. “Content blocking no longer resides solely in the domain of companies and geeks. Now, almost anyone can block browser content on an iOS device.”

Needless to say, that quickly got tracking and targeted advertising back on the radars of consumers and marketing firms.

What about news organizations?

Two University of Pennsylvania researchers Victor Pickard, associate professor, and Tim Libert, Ph.D. Candidate in Communication, recently published their research about one particular venue of third-party tracking: news organizations.

“The surprising extent to which news organizations subject readers to third-party tracking deserves closer attention,” write Pickard and Libert in this The Conversation commentary. “As a society, we often hold news organizations to higher ethical standards. They’re not just businesses; they are supposed to provide a vital public service, and they depend on public trust.”

With a nod towards Apple’s recent decision, the two authors mention, “While the ethics of readers unknowingly ‘paying’ for content with their privacy are certainly questionable, the practice is also indicative of the precarious situation in which the news industry finds itself.”

How big an issue is it?

To determine the prevalence of tracking by news media websites, the authors used webXray, an open-source software platform Libert developed. Libert writes, “webXray is a tool for detecting third-party HTTP requests on large numbers of web pages and matching them to the companies that receive user data.”

Libert then explains why third-party HTTP requests are important to tracking:

“Third-party HTTP requests are the lowest-level mechanism by which user data may be surreptitiously disclosed to unknown parties on the web. This may be for perfectly benign reasons, such as an embedded a picture from another site, or it may be a form of surveillance utilizing tracking pixels, cookies, or even sophisticated fingerprinting techniques.”

Libert continues, “In other words, webXray allows you to see which companies are monitoring which pages.”

To get a baseline, Libert and Pickard analyzed the top 100,000 websites as rated by Alexa. “We found that users were exposed to an average of eight external servers on each site,” mention the authors. “This means that many hidden third parties (again, usually advertisers) may be simultaneously observing an individual’s browsing habits.”

Besides using multiple tracking servers for the same site, Pickard and Libert stumbled across something else of interest. “Our investigation has revealed that among the 2,000-plus news-related websites identified by Alexa,” explain the authors, “readers are, on average, connected to over 19 third-party servers — twice as many as the 100,000 most popular sites.”

For example:

  • The New York Times’ home page:44 third-party servers
  • The Los Angeles Times’ website: 32 external servers
  • AccuWeather: 48 third-party servers

Figure A depicts the percentage of news sites that release information to various online trackers.

Figure A

Even public media outlets are not immune write the researchers, “A visitor to NPR’s website will be tracked by Chartbeat, Google, Nielsen Online, Moat, and comScore.”

Why the authors consider tracking a problem

Besides the obvious ethical concerns regarding user consent and privacy, the authors have the following technical concerns.

  • Waiting for multiple trackers to download causes slow web page load times.
  • Privacy-oriented search engines like DuckDuckGo aren’t spared from tracking. Libert explains, “Google, Facebook, and other major companies give away ‘free’ services like Google Analytics and the Facebook Like button to website owners. So, even if you never use Google or Facebook they can get your data.”
  • User information from over 60 websites is being sent to Experian and Acxiom, companies that sell user information on the open market.
  • Even if selected, online advertisers have been known to ignore the “Do Not Track” setting.

The last bullet, according to the authors, fueled the current debate about ad blockers. “When publishers don’t give people the tools to opt out of extensive behavioral tracking, they leave readers with only one option to protect their privacy — install an ad blocker.”

Is there a middle ground?

Pickard and Libert see some possible options. Publishers can:

  • continue their invasive advertising, or they can try to correct course; or
  • ignore user wishes in an attempt to make slightly more money on “targeted” ads, or they can respect their visitors’ “Do Not Track” requests.

Finally, Pickard and Libert are well aware of the importance of journalism. However, they caution, “We cannot let commercial imperatives run roughshod over the public’s right to privacy. News organizations should be ethical exemplars, not the bad apples among online actors.”