There's no such thing as a Free Browse ...

The old saying that "There's no such thing as a free lunch" has plenty of meanings in life as many of you will be aware.  But it also applies to you and your activities when browsing the 'net.  Virtually nothing you read about or surf is 'free'.  Even this humble little blog, tucked away in a remote corner of Google's Blogger service is not 'free'.  Oh, sure, it's free to use, but the cost is not quite ... how shall we put it? ... 'free' to you.  You're likely here because you're interested in the content of my blog.  But the fact that you are interested in this information is itself of interest to advertisers and marketers who use this info to build up a profile about you and your habits that they then sell on.

Let me tell you how.

Money can be made from your surfing habits on the Internet in a number of interesting ways:
  • If you choose to pay for a subscription service (such as a subscription to a news web site or a film provider) you are paying the web site owner directly.
  • If you buy something (such as from Amazon or ebay) some of the money you pay will go towards the cost of the web site.
  • And if you use Social web sites that encourage you to share information (such as search engines, Facebook, MySpace etc.) that social site makes money by selling information about you 
But, you might think, Facebook is free, isn't it?  And how on earth can Internet searches make money?

Sit down. Prepare yourself.

Facebook is certainly 'free to use' in that you do not have to pay to use Facebook apps to play games, or to answer questions about which books you've read, or which countries you've visited.  But what you are doing whenever you use these apps is giving away details about yourself to the companies that write these apps.  These companies can then sell this information to advertisers who use it to target adverts to you.

But Facebook doesn't only limit itself to these Apps.  Remember those Social buttons that you click on to 'Like' or '+1' a product or article? These are supposed to connect with websites that focus on building social relationships (like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn) and to help you share content, interests, and activities with your friends and contacts.  However, Social Buttons also allow these same social networks to track your activity across the internet whether you click on them or not.  This information is worth money to them as they then sell this on to their customers.  You can, for example, read what Facebook does with your data by reading their Data Use Policy.

Then there are Advertising networksThese share your information across different sites.  They collect data, display advertising, place cookies, and do a variety of other things as a paid-for service for their clients. Typically, the customer (not you - you're the product!) who buys from an ad network is a publisher who displays targeted adverts and marketing on many different websites.

Finally there are Tracking companies who provide individual website owners with tools to analyse and monitor visitors to their sites. These analytical networks collect data on how long you stayed on a site, what you clicked on, where you went before and after your visit, and more.  They'll track which words or phrases you used on a search engine to get here.  Even the path your mouse took to get to a button.  All of this is used to build up a profile of you, so that advertisers can target you with 'relevant' advertising - or to streamline the performance of a web site to make you click quicker on a link to an advert.

To give you an example, one person found out his wife might be pregnant from a peculiar source: an online ad. “I was seeing adverts for pregnancy tests every time I turned on my laptop,” says the 28-year-old. “I turned to my wife: ‘Is there something you’re not telling me?’ ” She had been using his laptop to research pregnancy tests.

This experience is becoming more common and, unfortunately, this is an integral part of your online life.  Bec­ause of this, your browser now knows as much as about your life as you do – occasionally, as the chap above found, it knows more...

Enough, already.
Ok.  So you're not going to stop this from happening.  There is just too much money and too many users involved.  But you can reduce how much information these companies gather about you.  Just a simple thing like not using the apps on Facebook can go a long way to cutting down what information is passed to these companies.  Many of you will also use tools such as 'ad blockers' in your browsers.  These stop certain adverts from displaying in your browser, but crucially will rarely stop your information from being gathered and stored away (think of your data as being harvested).

Recently I came across a product from a company called abine called DoNotTrackMe (When I first wrote this article the product was called DoNotTrackPlus.  The images and discussion below is using the older product.  The new version does the same job but more efficiently).  This free product works as an add-on to your browser and it watches out for advertising companies and social networks looking to gather your personal information from the web sites that you use.  Have a look at abine's web site to learn more - and download and use it to greatly reduce what the Internet world can harvest about you.

Is it effective?
I've been using it for a couple of months now and all I can say is that browsing seems quicker, and I see fewer ads on my sites.  Even my Facebook page doesn't show any ads.

The picture below shows Do Not Track Plus running on my Facebook page:

And this picture shows the Reuters site.  Note the 'Facebook 'Like' button.  It's blocked from tracking me, but I can still click on it to 'like' something.

Try this software.  As I said, it's free, it seems to work and at least for me, I feel it improves browsing and privacy.  And we all want some of that, don't we?

Let me know what you think.  This week, as you browse the internet or answer those questions on Facebook, keep in mind that when you're not paying with cash you're paying with your personal information....

Since publishing this Blog I saw the following nugget on the BBC news site claiming that ... "There are on average 14 tracking tools per webpage on the UK's most popular sites" and that European legislation was being proposed to control this. Read more about it here.

I have also had comments made on other forums about why I am promoting a 'free' application (DoNotTrackPlus) when I am warning my readers in the same article to be careful about 'free' internet services.

Good question.

Let me set the record straight: abine, the company behind DoNotTrackMe, have this same question in the FAQ section about DoNotTrackMe, and I reproduce a section below:
"Quite simply, we rely on users liking and trusting our free software enough to try our paid solutions such as DeleteMe. You can learn more about DeleteMe here:"
So hopefully you can see that their model accommodates free use of this program by leading you to want to buy their premium, paid-for service sometime later on.