Like Facebook, Twitter wants to know which websites you visit and so it has a system for tracking you as you click from site to site, a fact that leads to a pair of interesting questions: “Did you know that?” and “Are you okay with that?” As we will see in a moment, this system has been in place for some time and it is not the same as third-party, cross-site ad-tracking systems that you may have read about. There will be more about those and the “Do Not Track” feature in some web browsers after we show you how to turn off this particular form of Twitter tracking, currently referred to by Twitter as “Personalization.”
1. Go to www.twitter.com in your web browser and make sure you are logged in.
2. Click on the tiny inverted triangle just to the right of the head-and-shoulders icon on the right of your browser window (circled in red in the screenshot on the right).
3. Choose Settings from the drop-down menu.
4. Scroll down to the Personalization setting (marked by the yellow arrow on the right). Make sure the box labeled “Tailor Twitter based on my recent website visits” is not checked/ticked.
5. Click “Save changes” and you are done.
If you are already at your browser and logged-in to Twitter then you can click here to go direct to your Settings page.
Note that you do lose something if you turn off “Tailor Twitter based on my recent website visits”. One use of the information collected and stored by Twitter when this Setting is turned on makes possible a Twitter feature that suggests people for you to follow based on them being “frequently followed by other Twitter users that visit the same websites.”
There is a simple logic to this feature: If you allow us (Twitter) to track which sites you and other Twitter users visit then we can find people who tend to visit the same websites. So, if you have trouble finding people to follow on Twitter then this feature could be helpful. What you give to Twitter in order to get this feature is a lot of data about your web surfing habits, data that has value because some marketing companies would pay to get it, or Twitter could use it to tailor other content to you, like adverts.
The choice is yours, and I respect Twitter for making that Choice fairly clear in its documentation of this feature. As I have noted in previous posts, Choice is part of the second of the Fair Information Practice Principles which were drawn up to guide companies on the handling of personal information. Whether or not Twitter is doing a good job on the first principle, Notice/Awareness, is up to you to decide. For example, did you know that Twitter might be tracking your visits to websites within what it calls the “Twitter ecosystem”?
The “Twitter ecosystem” is defined as websites “that have integrated Twitter buttons or widgets”. Twitter says that using the Do Not Track (DNT) feature in your web browser will block Personalization tracking within the Twitter ecosystem, in addition to blocking other cross-site tracking.
Note: You can read about Do-not-track in Firefox, in Google Chrome, and in Internet Explorer 9, The DNT feature is available in some versions of Safari (this link might be helpful). Use the following link to see if your browser has a Do Not Track preference currently in effect.
Bear in mind that Do Not Track only works when websites install the DNT code. Twitter recently joined the DNT crowd, which includes Yahoo, when it confirmed that it will support the standard. This distinguishes Twitter from Facebook and Google which do not (yet) honor the DNT settings in your browser.
Also bear in mind that DNT is browser and device specific. So, if you log into Twitter on a friend’s computer and their browser does not have DNT turned on, and you have left the Twitter Personalization turned on, Twitter may be able to track the Twitter ecosphere websites that you visit.
On the right you can see a screenshot of a free browser add-on called Do Not Track Plus which displays the tracking activity which happens when you visit some websites, in this case when you visit huffingtonpost.com (very similar results are seen at cnn.com).
I am inclined to use the term “eco-tracking” to describe the button-and-widget based-tracking that Twitter uses to personalize “Follow” recommendations. This is just like tracking which is done by other companies such as Facebook and Google whose buttons and widgets have been installed on a large number of websites to form these various branded “ecosystems.” (There is a short video by Brian Cooley on CNET that might help you understand this eco-tracking.) Note that this is very different from the “tracking” that a single website does when you visit. For example, when you shop at an online store like QVC.com or amazon.com those site may track many things, such as which products you look at, for internal purposes. Think of this “internal” tracking as a shopkeeper paying attention to a customer in her store.
Eco-tracking is a bit like the shopkeeper following you around the mall to see which other stores you visit. And third party, cross-site tracking used by ad networks and data brokers is like someone tailing you all the time, even when you leave the mall and go to the library or anywhere else. While eco-tracking is arguably less invasive than third party tracking, eco-tracking is still aggregating a lot of data about your surfing habits and this raises the issue of trust.
Companies can say that they don’t share the data, or that they do anonymize it, or that they delete it after X number of days, but you have to trust that’s true and will remain true. As in other areas of life, trust needs to be earned. One way to earn trust is to be open about what you are doing and Twitter seems keen to take this approach.
Of course, the Internet is ever-changing and you may be familiar with the Russian phrase that Ronald Reagan liked to quote: Trust, but verify. When it comes to multi-billion dollar Internet companies, the trust part is up to you, but we will do our best to help you with the verify part.
Author Stephen Cobb, ESET