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.


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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Learned Fangirl at SXSW – Part 1: Black People on Twitter and other Non-Surprising Surprises

So, it’s been awhile, we know, but Learned Fangirl is back from hibernation. TLF was at SXSW Interactive this year and in between all of the panels, parties, networking, meeting old friends and new and trying to run away from drunken street harassers, we’ll be dropping some insights here in the next few days, probably weeks.

Before I get to into discussing the panels and the conference as a whole (and I’ve a lot to say about that), I wanted to use this first post to examine a theme I’ve noticed through the panels I’ve attended thus far.

When I attended last year, some of the attendees (including myself) were very critical of the demographic breakdown of the SXSW panels and panel topics, which like the tech industry as a whole, is pretty heavy on white males between the ages of 25-40.  There was a very public call to improve the diversity of these panels when the call for presenters went up for SXSW last year.

To the organizers’ credit, the SXSW Panel Picker went a long way in attempting to create more a more diverse experience in terms of panel speakers and topics, which was good to see; topics of race/gender difference seem to spring up even on panels that weren’t focused on those issues.

danah boyd‘s keynote talk on online privacy vs. publicity sparked a lot of discussion and thought for me. Some of you may remember boyd’s research on race/class and social networks. and her implication that MySpace is not a dead social network as much as it was perceived to be by the social media thought leaders who no longer spend time there.

This year, boyd brought attention to the black online subculture that exists on Twitter. Later, during his session “How to be Black Online,” comic Baratunde Thurston elaborated on the online user behavior of African-Americans, addressing the differences in technology use and social media conversation from general (i.e. white) online users. It’s great insight that unfortunately still doesn’t seem to stick with some social media experts who still cling to the old “digital native/digital immigrant” argument.

Talk of social media user and age is overstated at this point (yes, the median age of a Facebook user is 44, we know) while race and class stratification of the online world is still the elephant in the room at conferences like SXSW and elsewhere. I’ve noticed many of the “people of difference”  are engaging in digital grassroots activism and DIY/entrepreneurial efforts but not necessarily represented widely as industry leaders.

While the digital divide is arguably not as wide as it used to be (and I am not completely convinced of that) race and even more importantly, class, is mostly an afterthought in conversations about social media and the web. For all the data available on online user behavior, and all the talk about social media audience segmentation, online audiences are still primarily viewed as monolithic; the subject of race and class differences still seem to be a revelation for digital industry experts.  That’s a real shame when you consider the opportunities being missed by the industry as a whole.

The encouraging thing about SXSW 2010, however is that there was at least the beginning of some kind of dialogue started about these issues and that there was room for it. Still we’re outliers; there’s not enough race/gender/class diversity at the table, either at conferences like SXSW or the industry as a whole for the conversation to take place outside of just a off-shoot panel or two. The conversation needs to  become practice in order to lead to any structural change in the way digital experts view user behavior in the online space.

Ah well, maybe next year.

Facebook and the culture of total transparency

So … did ya watch the 60 Minutes interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday night? You didn’t? Well that makes you, me and a few million other people, since it brought 60 Minutes its lowest ratings of the year thus far. Big surprise? Not really. I don’t think most casual users care so much about the creator of Facebook, even if they have an account, and those that are more invested in it (web marketing professionals and start-up execs, etc.) don’t necessarily hold Zuckerberg in such high regard.

So yeah, the Facebook piece was a bomb for CBS, but that’s not even the point of this post. Even if you could care less about Mark Zuckerberg, if you have a Facebook account – or a My Space account, or a Friendster account, or even just a blog – the issue of transparency in social networking sites (i.e. letting your online “friends” in on all of your business) is a huge issue.

It’s probably a bit ironic – if not hypocritical – for me to say this: a person with two blogs and six social networking profiles, and who spends a good part of her working day researching this kind of stuff, but I find this new culture of 100% online transparency to be pretty freaking annoying.

And this is really all Facebook’s fault. While Friendster, My Space and other sites allow users to have a selective level of anonymity through online aliases, Facebook allows no such thing, your full, real name is a required part of your profile, and your work, personal information and interests are automatically served up for personal consumption on news feeds until you select to have that particular feed removed.

This insistence on total tranparency, combined with Facebook’s very aggressive approach of mining this information for marketing purposes had certainly won a large share of detractors, which has been well documented. It’s annoying to me as a user; when I decided to take my relationship status off of Facebook (I use it for professional networking more than socializing) I got three messages from people asking there was a new “special guy in my life.” Three!

But, as an individual who manages a Facebook group for Association of Women Journalists, I will readily admit I’ve taken advantage of user’s openness about their interests to invite them to the group. And it’s an inevitability that I will be advocating a similar use of Facebook at my current job. Far from being dooced, I was actually hired in part because of my professional experience with blogging.

Total tranparency online as a default is certainly problematic when it comes to privacy issues, but as a culture, we’re moving more and more in that direction. Going back to the “good old days” of online anonymity isn’t really an option when you’ve got an entire generation of online users who are used to throwing their business up online to a “friends” list that consists of friends, relatives, c0-workers and total strangers.

Not to mention, anonymity on the web these days is seen as suspect. If one is not open about your identity on some level it’s assumed you have something to hide. (which is true, in a lot of cases)

But at the same time, I find myself not really caring if someone on my friends list just ate a cheeseburger two minutes ago or posted to a group of Clay Aiken fans, and I am sure my online friends feel the same way about my activities, and I shouldn’t have to work to not make that the default for my online experiences.