Last week, I added a program to my Web browser that does nothing but eat cookies – the little tracking files placed on my computer as I surf the Web. The program tells me whose cookies it's wiping out as I go from one site to another, and most of them are from websites I've never visited. That's because they're placed by third parties, who have contracted with the websites I do visit to monitor my activity and Web habits. That data is being added to any number of personal profiles of me, which I may neither see nor delete.
Self-Destructing Cookies, the extension I added to my Firefox browser, turned out to be a good introduction to Do Not Track, a new seven-part Web documentary series produced by the National Film Board of Canada, the Paris-based company Upian and two European broadcasters. Do Not Track is all about the data that we're exposing or giving away when we go online, and about what those who gather it can do with it.
The NFB calls it a personalized documentary, because it's attentive to the viewer. In the first minutes of episode one, the show tells you where in the world you are, what the weather's like outside, and what kind of computer you're using, because you communicate all that just by going to the website and pressing "play." It's a great opening move, because it shows you right away how you leak data online without knowing it. Later, you're prompted to enter information – your favourite news site, or your Facebook login – which then triggers a personalized response that's bound to be alarming if you think your browsing is private in any way.
Further episodes look at the implications of what we divulge willingly on social networks; the "filter bubble" that can tilt our news toward subjects and views to which we're already attuned; and the extremely leaky appliances we're all carrying around with us: our mobile phones. Each of us, the series says, is under a form of automated scrutiny that is mostly being used to sell ads, but that can just as easily be exploited to identify people with opinions unpalatable to the state.
If you're already a little paranoid about who's watching you on the Web, this visually lively series, of which I've seen the first two short episodes, may send you under the bed in a big way. But Victoria-based filmmaker Brett Gaylor, who conceived and directed the series, says he's not out to scare, but to spark a debate.
"I'm hoping Do Not Track will be a catalyst for a conversation about the Web we've created, and whether we like it," he says. "I want you to do something. I want you to realize that you are implicated in this."
We all got implicated in creating the current Web, Gaylor says, by deciding that we didn't want to pay for anything. Episode two outlines how our refusal drove Web companies toward involuntary modes of payment, in the form of personal data they could buy and sell. That commodity, in turn, spawned "behavioural advertising" based on our preferences, postal codes and much else. Our stinginess, to paraphrase our Prime Minister, forced the Internet to commit sociology on all of us.
One problem with this model, aside from its routine invasion of privacy, is that it works best on a large scale, Gaylor says, with ad networks that can gather and compare data from lots of websites. "It really favours those who can collect large audiences," he says.
After a U.S. judge ruled in 2007 that Web-tracking devices were not equivalent to illegal wiretaps, a wave of consolidation put the industry under the control of a few large players. Google, which uses search results to target ads, also owns DoubleClick and AdWords Express, which place ads based on broader personal profiles. We may think that using Google is free, but Do Not Track reckons that Google makes $45 per year from each one of us.
The consolidation of everything on the Internet is a cause of grief to people who, like Gaylor, share a dream of the Internet as an open democracy, made by and for the people. He sounds wistful about his time working at the Firefox Foundation, where he worked with other true believers "who think of the Web as a citizens' medium that should be shaped by citizens," he says.
What can we do? I've gotten rid of Google's Chrome browser, which was getting way too cozy with AdWords Express, and I search with DuckDuckGo, which doesn't track my results. I also run a program on my mobile phone called Orbot, which encrypts what I send over the Web and "bounces it through a series of computers around the world," according to the Guardian Project, which tries to make mobile devices more secure and less trackable.
But there's a problem with pulling up one's own drawbridge, says Gaylor. Refusing to be part of the Web advertising economy is another way of telling the Internet that I want everything for free. If we really want a less invasive and predatory Web, he says, we'll have to come up with more positive ideas.
Ironically, Do Not Track also places cookies on its users' computers, collects e-mail addresses and analyzes its Web traffic. Gaylor says that's only to allow the series to personalize itself for its users, and to send them information on resources they can use to become better Web citizens.
"We've made a commitment that we're going to delete that database" when the series is over, he says. In this context, his vow almost sounds like a radical statement. For once, no money will be made on our innocent curiosity.
Do Not Track is online at donottrack-doc.com, with a new episode added every two weeks. The series is also being presented this week at the Tribeca Film Festival's Storyscapes transmedia showcase in New York (April 16-19).