If you're running a website with Google Analytics installed, you may be wondering how it affects the privacy of your website's visitors. There's a growing distrust towards the digital advertising sector but what are the actual issues besides calling out 'creepy' ads? Let's discuss the wider ethical questions around personal data collection and digital targeting.
Why is Google in the analytics business?
The biggest problem with online tracking is not that it's 'creepy'. The problem is moving the whole advertising model from mass-broadcasting to individual targeting.
Let's be honest, the executives at Google don't care what websites I visit. They care about making more money from advertising so their quarterly report looks good. Google has found that tracking and targeting individuals (or 'serving relevant ads' in corporate speak) results in more clicks which results in more revenue. As their ultimate goal is to increase shareholder value, it follows that they need to track as much data about web visitors as possible to be able to serve the most 'relevant ads'.
Targeted advertising creates a massive global demand for personal information that can be used for such targeting. This means collecting your browsing history, measuring your engagement with content, tracking your location at all times, inferring demographic information about you, etc.
This is why Google Analytics exists. It's also why Chrome, Gmail, Google Maps, and pretty much every other free product by Google exists. The goal is to embed their free services in the basic infrastructure of the web. This infrastructure can be used to collect as much personal data as possible to drive advertising profits.
Targeted advertisement is unethical
Google's track record of handling personal data has been absolutely dismal. Facebook is even worse. Their online trackers are incredibly intrusive, making us feel like we're under corporate surveillance at all times. Although we can use their useful software for free, we end up paying with our personal privacy. This is well documented.
Besides the costs to our personal privacy, I'd say the much bigger scandal lies in how targeted advertising affects civil society. Political campaigns are now able to discern with amazing accuracy which voters to target with their advertising. Instead of debating issues in the public and broadcasting ads to everybody, campaigns can target voters on an individual basis. This contributes to filter bubbles, disinformation, radicalization, and a general breakdown of democracy.
This is what the Cambridge Analytica scandal was about. The company was built to use online tracking and targeting to win political campaigns for the highest bidder. They've been incredibly successful:
It's all about understanding the motivations of the target audience and trying to understand at a very granular level why people might undertake a certain behaviour, whether that's joining a terrorist organisation or smoking cigarettes or eating fast food.
[on Cambridge Analytica's services for the Trump campaign] We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign and our data informed all the strategy
It has to happen without anyone thinking it’s propaganda, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’ the next question is: ‘Who’s put that out?’
- Alexander Nix, Former CEO of Cambridge Analytica
Regardless of whether you support Trump or not, it's hard to deny that propaganda is on the rise. Trump's marketing team, was spending $70 million a month during it's peak in October 2016. The details are not known, but it's fair to assume that most of it was spent on digital advertising.
We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump's extraordinary win
- Alexander Nix, Former CEO of Cambridge Analytica
If you have 10 minutes, I'd recommend watching Alexander Nix himself to push propaganda and undermine democracy. If you have 2 hours, I'd recommend watching The Great Hack. Orwellian stuff.
What does Google Analytics have to do with this?
Individual targeting is only as effective as the data collected on individuals. With GA used on more than 60% of all websites, Google can track your journey through most websites you visit. Based on this browsing history and many other variables, they can build a profile on who you are and what your interests are. This helps political and corporate campaigns to target you more effectively.
Some say data is the new oil, but what if it's new CO2?
As developers, marketers, technologists, we shouldn't be complicit in this. Yes, most of us block ourselves from being tracked individually, but what about the websites we run?
If we keep using Google Analytics on them, we're effectively handing over our visitors' browsing habits to Google for free. Same goes for any other third-party scripts and pixels that advertising companies want you to include on your website.
How to control your analytics data
First of all, don't include any scripts or pixels by advertising companies like Google and Facebook. That's the starting point.
If you care about measuring traffic to your website, use an open-source analytics tool that you trust. Open-source projects are subject to public scrutiny, and they embody a more ethical culture oriented towards the public good rather than private profits.
It's also important to consider data ownership. The Google and Facebook model says that the analytics data from your website is to be monetized through advertisement. After all, they must get something in return for offering a free service. If you want to truly own your data, you have to be ready to pay for your analytics.
You can either install a self-hosted analytics platform, or choose a cloud-based service whose business model is to charge directly for their service instead of making money from advertisers. I like convenience so I lean towards cloud services as long as they are open source and promise 100% data ownership.
There are many projects in this space catering for different needs. Last year I started building an open-source analytics tool for my own needs, which are simplicity and performance. I think most analytics platforms are over-complicated to the point of being more confusing than helpful. Meanwhile, websites are getting more bloated due to heavy front-end scripts that degrade the user experience.
Plausible is a stripped-down, lightweight version of what big analytics suites offer. My aim is to build a tool that tracks overall trends in traffic, not personal data on individual visitors. If Plausible is too simplistic for your needs, I'd recommend checking out this list of alternatives to Google Analytics. There are many players in this space who guarantee that they will not monetize your data through advertisement. As long as you stop using giant AdTech platforms like GA, you'll be doing a big service to your website visitors.
(Disclaimer: The Author is the Founder at Plausible.io)