By Bits of Freedom

It has become a daily routine: “consenting to” being tracked, on the basis of meaningless explanations (or no explanation at all) before you’re allowed access to a website or online service. It’s about time to set limits to this tracking rat race.

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An ever-growing portion of our personal and professional communication, our news consumption and our contact with government, is mediated through the internet. Access to online information and services is crucial to participating in today’s society. Yet, on a daily basis we are forced to allow ourselves to be tracked – from across multiple websites and app , and across several devices – before we’re given access to information or digital services.

The infamous cookie walls you encounter when visiting websites are a prime example of this. If you want to get beyond that wall, you first have to consent to having your online behaviour minutely tracked. To be clear, we are not talking about the cookies that are necessary to, for example, store your settings or for gathering stats on the use of your website in a privacy friendly manner. We are talking about all those trackers that usually originate from multiple, completely different parties from the website you intended to visit, and that continue to track your behaviour across the internet.

Issues with tracking

Tracking raises many concerns. First of all, while we become more transparent to online tracking companies, a lot of the current practices, and the parties employing them, are highly opaque. We are unaware how much of our activity online is registered, analysed and used, by how many different parties, for what purposes nor what inferences about our activities are generated.

Secondly, the information collected through trackers makes us susceptible to manipulation – indeed, that is the usual purpose. This can have serious consequences for the power (im)balances between citizens and consumers on the one hand and governments, corporations and other organisations that have access to this data on the other. Just think of the instrumental role tracking plays in micro-targeted political advertising, price discrimination or exploiting the cognitive biases and specific weaknesses of individual users.

Third, the data gathered through tracking is increasingly used for making decisions about us. For example, the answer to whether you have access to credit and under what terms may depend on such data. This often happens under the cloak of long terms full of legalese you consented to which provide you no meaningful transparency. Even if you are aware that data about you is being used for making automated decisions, it is hard to challenge the inaccuracy of such decisions or the data they rely on.

An often heard response is that you are free to withhold your consent to being tracked. That is correct in theory, but much harder in the real world. In our daily lives it is often a choice between limited or no access at all, or subjecting yourself to opaque tracking. This is particularly problematic when the information or services you would like to access are provided by public institutions, health service providers or organisations that play an important role in society and that you therefore cannot simply avoid.

Think for instance of public institutions such as the Tax Administration, but also hospitals, health insurance companies, banks or internet access providers. By making access to their services conditional on your consent to being tracked, your consent becomes involuntary and essentially meaningless. This practice has to stop.

As a user you should be able to gather information and use services without being forced to consent to being tracked. And why shouldn’t we take it one step further and put an end to tracking walls for all the online information and services that we use?

What will the EU do?

At this very moment, European Union institutions are working on an overhaul of specific privacy rules for electronic communications, e-Privacy Regulation. Who is permitted to read your messages, are tracking walls allowed and may your phone be used to map your physical location without your consent? These are some of the important questions these new rules address. They will have a substantial impact on all internet users across the EU.

This overhaul of the rules offers an excellent opportunity to tear down tracking walls for all of Europe. EDRi Brussels office and EDRi members are not the only one advocating for this. The data protection authorities in Europe also recommend to put an end to this practice. In October 2017, the European Parliament will vote on the new rules proposed by the European Commission and the hundreds of amendments that have been submitted by different Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Will the rights of internet users be safeguarded and will we get a digital environment free from opaque tracking practices?

This is a shortened version of an article originally published by EDRi member Bits of Freedom: https://bof.nl/2017/09/20/tear-down-the-tracking-wall/.

(Contribution by David Korteweg, EDRi member Bits of Freedom, the Netherlands; Adaptation by Maren Schmid, EDRi intern)

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