Our Law and Society Presentation: Google Analytics: Analyzing the Latest Wave of Legal Concerns for Google in the U.S. and the E.U

This is a much shortened version of our presentation (by Keidra Chaney & Raizel Liebler) at the Law and Society Conference. The complete version (with citations!) will be published in the next Buffalo Intellectual Property Law Journal.

What is Web Analytics?

Web Analytics’ official definition by the Web Analytics Association, the worldwide professional organization for web analytics is: “the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of Internet data for the purposes of understanding and optimizing Web usage”

Web analytics involves the collection and measurement of various forms of online user data, and is traditionally used as a tool for market researchers and web professionals to measure the effectiveness of website communication. As web transactions have become a major source of revenue for companies large and small, online marketing and web communication has evolved to become more of a priority for marketing department, for these companies, measuring and optimizing user results have become a priority. Web analytics commonly provides information on online user activity including web page views, number of visitors, visitor location and referring websites. This information is then used by marketers to evaluate the effectiveness of website content.

The WAA cites the 1993 founding of web analytics software company WebTrends as the formal beginning of web analytics as an industry and a profession. There are two primary methods of data collection used by web analytics software to track user sessions on a website:

1.) Logfile analysis, which uses the log files stored on a website server to collect information on users’ IP addresses, date/time information and referring websites. A number of open source web analytics tools, such as AWStats and Piwik employ this method.

2.) Page tagging involves placing javascript code on a webpage to notify a third party server whenever a page is loaded in a browser, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Firefox. This method is employed by Google Analytics.

Cookies, a data collection method used by most hosted analytics software companies, tracks user sessions by placing a small piece of text on a user’s computer when a browser loads. The use of cookies by analytics vendors, including Google Analytics will be the focus of much of our discussion and analysis in this article.

Cookies

An http cookie is a very text file that is places on a users computer hard disk by a web server when a user loads a webpage on their browser. Cookies are commonly employed by web servers to track and authenticate detailed information about online users, based on identifying the specific computer/browser combination of the user. First party cookies are issues by the same website domain being visited. Third party cookies are issued to track user activity among multiple websites.

Third party cookies are commonly used by e-commerce companies for targeted online advertising based on clickstream behavior. While cookies are used by most analytics companies for data collection (including Google Analytics), privacy concerns do prompt some users to delete cookies from their computers after use. According to a 2007 report from web analytics firm comscore, 3 out of 10 internet users regularly delete cookies from their computers.

While cookie technology is not intended to violate consumer privacy by design, there have been instances of companies using this technology maliciously. A 2006 study on consumer understanding of cookie technology showed that users remain unclear about how cookies technology is used by websites, the advantages and disadvantages of use, and the differences between cookies, technology, viruses and malware.

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