Independent media outlets and publishers around the world are unknowingly exposing their readers and visitors to invasive monitoring — and often without their consent, according to a new report published by the Center for International Media Assistance.
The report, authored by Ayden Férdeline, Tech Policy Fellow at the Mozilla Foundation, examined 50 independent media outlets across 10 countries, and found that more than 90 percent were tracking data about their readers.
“Users cannot protect themselves,” Férdeline said at a panel discussion in June held at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C., where he shared his study’s findings. “It’s important for independent publishers to protect and take care of the privacy of their readers.”
When it comes to tracking software, most independent media outlets collect as much data as possible from their visitors in order to sell targeted advertising. This advertising is often a primary source of revenue for small publishers, many of which struggle with financial sustainability.
In the last year or two, however, policymakers and internet users alike have become more concerned with the amount of data being tracked online, leading to a new generation of legislation addressing the issue, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) passed in the European Union in 2018.
Not all websites have adopted such policies, however — especially those based in the Global South. Although GDPR is considered “the new global standard,” according to the report, it — and other similar data protection laws — can be difficult to enforce. This can mean the incentives to comply are low for countries that are not subject to its jurisdiction, especially when not complying can be financially lucrative.
Users are often fooled by the “share” button, Férdeline said. While readers might think they are clicking on a link to share a story through Facebook or Twitter, tracking software is often embedded in the link’s code. That one click could bring in another 20 companies tracking that data, of which the reader would not be aware.
Among the media outlets surveyed in the report, roughly 15 percent of the tracking devices could not be traced, Férdeline said. This means users don’t know who is tracking or collecting their personal data.
The tracking devices found on independent media websites rarely ask for consent to track data, the report found. There are several measures outlets can adopt, however, that would show a greater respect for users’ privacy, such as self-hosting content. Other steps, like switching to internal ad sales instead of third-party advertising would also help mitigate risk, but the costs can be prohibitive for an independent media outlet that might not have the same resources as a larger one.
Much of the discussion at the June event centered on how users could better advocate for themselves, especially when big tech companies control so much internet traffic as people regularly click on links through third parties such as Twitter or Facebook.
Nathalie Maréchal, one of the panelists and a senior research analyst at Ranking Digital Rights, argued that because big tech companies are lobbying against regulation, consumers need to better educate themselves and speak up for their own interests.
"Companies are not going to start respecting privacy rights because we ask them nicely,” Maréchal said. “It’s well past the time of asking nicely and self-regulating. We need hard-hitting regulation and we need enforcement, and we need it now.”