Tuesday Grok: Cast the first stone amongst swine

Bandits, pirates, scammers and thieves

In journalism you dream of the story that keeps on giving. Forget providing a free and seamless way for 800 million people to communicate. Or allowing millions of friends to reconnect after decades apart, or shrinking the world so that comrades otherwise lost overseas are now part of your everyday conversation. No Facebook's great contribution to the world is to keep a generation of reporters and bloggers (is there a difference these days?) steeped in outrage. On your behalf of course.

From a slow burn in the US on Sunday to endless pages of confected surprise by yesterday evening, the revelation that Facebook uses tracking cookies to see what you have been up to after you have left their site unleashed the daily storm, here and overseas.

At its heart the story is about how a T modified cookie on Facebook keeps tracking what you are up to even if you have logged out. It gets interesting when this little data point is conflated with the recent Timeline announcements (See Yesterday’s grok and allows for the suggestion that, apparently, Facebook may populate your status updates with information about pages you have viewed without your consent if those pages have existing ties to Facebook, such as a like button. (Ok, so no one cares that you are secretly interested in Trish Wiley's romance novels.)

Even after millions of banner ad-funded page impressions have been served on the topic it's not at all entirely clear what's going on, and how, or if at all, the information is currently being used, as Facebook is sensibly keeping schtum about the whole damn mess.

Mashable and Readwriteweb starting the ball rolling two days ago and the locally Gizmodo got in the first shot, but the story really gathered momentum here after the Sydney Morning Herald picked it up and ran it across the Fairfax Digital networks - the fact that it had an Australian angle in the form of local developer Wollongong-based Nik Cubrilovic who first blew the whistle certainly helped.

News.com.au joined the fray a little later in the day, but at least they credited their competitors at the SMH with the scoop, which was unfortunate since it was unwarranted. Both took the spooky low road about the implications of it all. In that approach they were hardly alone, or even the worst. But it was kind of amusing all the same since Fairfax and News are privacy bandits of the highest order.

As a little test Grok checked the profligacy of various news web sites in Australia and yes, the methodology was slipshod and unscientific. But within those very permeable parameters, we learnt this: Yahoo, News and Ninemsn (and their advertisers) deposited 14 cookies each on our machine, the SMH (and advertisers) blew them away with 23 (or 60 per cent more, as we say in the trade). By comparison, Facebook delivered only a paltry and disappointing seven.

Grok understands the heat generated by any significant story about Facebook and privacy, but really this kind of thing is hardly breaking new ground. Google has been ‘doing evil’ with cookies for ages, while locally the major publishers (and many of the smaller ones too) not only allow advertisers to follow you around the web but actively promote "behavioral retargeting" as a service .That is they capture you on one site (their own) and sell you on like a cheap pair of second hand socks to advertisers when you visit other sites, usually at radically lower yields — hence the appeal the advertiser.

So tell us what annoys you most: the fact that they are selling you, or that they are selling you at a discount?

It’s common, and uncontroversial enough for a very wide set of otherwise hostile competitors to have agreed a code of practice around it, and anyone who's been involved in drafting an industry code of practice understands the significance of that. This code was helpfully provided to your humble grokker yesterday by a spokesperson for the industry group along with a brief comment about the importance of Knowing. Your. Every. Move.(We've helpfully translated this below.)

We even told them the context for the story so they wouldn't feel slighted, even slightly sexyliciously slighted(

The Australian Digital Advertising Alliance's Melina Rohan told us: "online behavioral advertising (Ed. – that is, following you around the Qeb) allows advertisers (Ed. – that is, profligate abusers of your human right to privacy) to deliver adverts that are tailored to a consumer’s interests (Ed. - we all know what that means!) based on their recent internet browsing activity (Ed. - surfing for p*rn

Which is all cool and legit, so long as you are copacetic with sweaty palmed advertisers following you around in their trench coats and trading your personal foibles (not that there's anything wrong with that) to any nasty little cookie monster with a purse full of copper coins who rocks up at the cash register.

It's a fair punt that many of the journalists breathlessly report such conduct work for self same publishers who do the same or worse than Facebook. Maybe even Grok's own publisher (in which case please ignore everything in this Grok).

Other stuff is happening as well. For instance the ABS is about to upgrade its systems to keep a track on all that private data they collect about us (wonder if there’s a Facebook app coming) while Telstra will today unveil its 4G mobile broadband service. Samsung and Apple are fighting in the courts over the tablet market, while Amazon and Apple are fighting in the marketplace over the same thing. As always, our money’s on the lawyers. Including links to all those stories takes time, so Google them instead (but make sure you have private browsing turned on because you never know who’s watching.)

Andrew Birmingham is the CEO of Silicon Gully Investments. Follow him on Twitter @ag_birmingham.

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