Oil Meet Water: Link Tracking in Firefox

firefoxFirefox developer Darin Fisher posted recently that the Firefox development team is adding a feature that will notify a designated server every time a link is clicked on. The idea is that, every time a visitor clicks on a link that includes this feature, Firefox will send notification pings to the designated server.

Correctly anticipating the community response, Darin assures us that “this change is being considered with the utmost regard for user privacy.” The idea, he says, is to enable commonly used link tracking mechanisms to get out of the critical path and thereby reduce the time required for visitors to see the page they clicked on.

Leaving aside the bigger question of why anyone should be allowed to track our comings and goings from a web site (lots of sites do this, including, to an extent, Newsome.Org, which currently uses Google Analytics for traffic analysis purposes), let’s think about this for a second.

Wishful Thinking

In a perfect world, no one would do any sort of link tracking and we could all come and go in perfect and blissful privacy. Of course in a perfect world, everyone would turn in all of their weapons too, and we’d live in peaceful, weapon-free harmony. Since people are as unlikely to stop link tracking as they are to destroy all their weapons, we have to deal with the fact that link tracking and traffic analysis are here to stay.

We also have to keep in mind, however, that privacy is both an important requirement of most web users and a rallying cry for both reasonable people and the lunatic fringe any time someone screams that someone else is trying to take it away. So Firefox has to proceed carefully and with caution.

Here in the Real World

If we have to accept link tracking, does the proposed Firefox implementation improve things? Embedding objects and redirecting links in the name of traffic analysis is not my area of expertise, so I have to go on what I’m told and logic.

First of all, if this implementation will, in fact, materially reduce server loads and wait times as I move from one page to the next, I’m all for it. On the other hand, if it will only marginally do so, but will further erode my already limited privacy, them I’m not for it. Also, I wouldn’t want to encourage even more link tracking by making it too easy.

Just to show off my math skills, let’s do some formulas on the whiteboard:

Faster surfing + equal privacy = OK

Much faster surfing + only slightly less privacy = Probably OK

Much faster surfing + materially less privacy = Not OK

Anything + more link tracking and similar stuff = Not OK

Let me put my slide rule back in my pocket and we’ll continue.

Will It Work With What We Have?

Another issue that I wonder about but can’t address is whether this new approach will be usable by and embraced by all of the tracking services and implementations currently in use. In other words, can Google Analytics use this implementation to make its service more efficient? If so, would it?

I don’t have the know-how or the inclination to change the way I handle my traffic analysis just to save a few milliseconds between pages, and I bet most other bloggers feel the same way. Ease of implementation seems to me to be the key to widespread effectiveness.

Opting Out

One potentially saving grace is that this feature can be disabled via your Firefox configuration. Granted, not many people will know about the feature (pinging, unlike some redirects, is invisible) or enough about the issue to think of disabling it, but it’s better to have the ability and not use it than to want it and not have it.

Conclusions

The jury’s still out on this feature. My knee-jerk reaction is that it’s a bad idea, because Firefox is supposed to be one of the freedom fighters working to keep “The Man” out of our hair and off our computers. But if all it does is make something that’s going to happen anyway less intrusive, then maybe it’s OK.

As is often the case, the devil will be in the details.

More Discussion on this issue at:

Download Squad
RC3.Org

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