See How You Have Been Tracked Online

Online tracking is a murky business. That's why the Open Data Partnership is attempting to demystify how Netizens have been tracked. Will it actually change anything?

The Open Data Partnership is an attempt by some of the most aggressive online tracking firms to reveal what data they've collected about the online activities of the many Internet users they follow, and then sell on to targeted advertising firms. The plan is to set up a one-stop shop at, where users can opt out of certain types of tracking. You'll be glad to know the site itself won't be used to generate more tracking data.

Lots of web-based advertising tracks users, usually via cookies. The goal is to identify different users so that tailored ads can be directed at them—and web ads are how most online publications, including this one, generate revenue.

But exactly how much data is collected is an important question, one that the FCC feels needs to be regulated. The agency thinks a "do not track" list should exist, for folks who'd prefer to not be traced, similar to the "do not call" list for telemarketers. One politician in the U.S. is already ahead of this game, and is pushing for legislation—which should swing into force in 2011—to prevent firms tracking children's activities online without specific consent from their parents.

The Open Data Partnership is a step towards openness in Net tracking. It only includes eight data firms, however. Giants in the business like Google and Yahoo are not involved—presumably, in Google's case, because they're making their own efforts to be open.

There are plans to expand the system so that targeted ads will have a pop-over "Open Data" icon (shown above). Clicking this will reveal the specific tracking data that resulted in you seeing this ad, but advertising firms would have to pay for the privilege. For this to work, ad firms would have to feel compelled to join in, and the only way that would happen is if they were legally required to, or enough concerned consumers were aware of the matter. 

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