Consumer Reports Warns Against Online Tracking, Then Does It Themselves

Both in print and online, Consumer Reports says it’s “the most trusted source for product buying advice and ratings.”

But when it comes to their own marketing, there’s a big reason to distrust them.

Just days ago, an email to members from president Jim Guest warned that:

Someone is following you around. At least, online they are.

When you go online, you unwittingly give companies lots of information about yourself based on the sites you visit, the searches you run, the movies you watch and more.

But in the kind of disingenuousness they condemn in marketers, there’s one little thing the Consumer Reports email somehow neglected to mention: They do big-time unwitting tracking themselves.

Do as we say…

The email goes on to say that

Trackers say that online tracking is good because it helps deliver ads that will interest you. That’s fine, if that’s what you choose. But right now, you can’t effectively say “No.”

It’s time to stop the unwanted tracking once and for all!

Although polls show that most of us would prefer more privacy and less tracking, advertising companies have no incentive to abide by our wishes.

The advertising companies want to be able to track you anyway.

Your lawmakers should tell the ad companies to respect your do-not-track orders.

Their website goes still further. “You might not mind if your kids try and see what you’re doing as you Christmas shop online,” it says, “but you may not want to share your shopping and surfing history with every big online ad company…act now to protect your family’s online activities” by signing and sending a form letter they’ve conveniently provided.

Clearly, the self-appointed consumer watchdogs believe that tracking is a Bad Thing. But only when everyone else does it.

…not as we do

There’s only one little problem with all this sanctimony. One of the biggest practitioners of the surreptitous consumer tracking Consumer Reports so self-righteously decries is… Consumer Reports itself.

“What Consumer Reports failed to disclose is that its own website, ConsumerReports.org, is laden with the full array of advertising-tracking technologies — the very ones they’re telling consumers to take action against,” Advertising Age reports.

Its online reviews of everything from cars to cardiologists contain “a slew of third-party ad and analytics tags.” These let Consumer Reports, the foe of online tagging and tracking, track visitors themselves, targeting them with all kinds of ads from associated networks and exchanges.

A Ghostery software search of the site uncovered tags for more than ten third-party online advertising companies, including Yahoo’s Blue Lithium and Right Media, Google-owned DoubleClick and Invite Media, Dataxu, and Valueclick.

What’s more, according to monitoring firm Moat.com, unwanted tracking may have caused unwitting Consumer Reports visitors to see display ads promoting subscriptions on sites from About.com to ThinkComputers.org.

One thing the site doesn’t include, incidentally, is any way for unwitting consumers to opt out of all this unwanted tracking and spamming – or, as their email so succinctly put it, “to effectively say ‘No.'”

The industry’s a better watchdog

It turns out that the advertising and digital industries are doing more to protect consumers from unwanted tracking than Consumers Union.

Browser software – including Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, and the latest versions of Internet Explorer – all give users a Do Not Track [DNT] option. For IE, in fact, it’s a default.

The Digital Advertising Alliance self-regulating trade coalition has agreed on a DNT standard and has been working with the FTC, Google and Microsoft to establish it.

Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, has taken a lead role on the World Wide Web Consortium’s working group to establish technical specs for a browser-based DNT standard, and the FTC is backing that initiative.

Consumer Reports, on the other hand, has done nothing more than send out a misleading email.

Parent organization Consumers Union describes itself on its website as “an expert, independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves.”

But who’s going to protect consumers from self-righteous hypocrites like Consumers Union?

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