April 2, 2018

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Monday? Sign up here.

It finally seems as though the writing is on the (ahem, Facebook) wall for companies and organizations that track internet users.

Consumers have known for years that the websites they peruse, the Facebook pages they like and the weird questions they ask search engines all go somewhere and factor into something that then is used by someone for some purpose.

They knew this because some of the results were obvious. Search for T-shirts with big, dumb animal faces on them, for example, and you’ll see those T-shirts on the right rail of every website you visit for weeks. Maybe you’ll eventually be driven to buy one with a giant monkey face. A hypothetical example, of course.

But now that some of the more nefarious uses for this data are clear — targeted ads paid for by foreign governments attempting to sway elections is certainly up there on the list — Internet users are paying attention to who’s gathering what.

That includes news publishers, as Doc Searls has explored. News publishers collect a lot of data, mostly for analytics and online advertising technology. If you’re reading this on the Poynter website, for example, you can expect that you’re being tracked by Chartbeat for analytics, DoubleClick for advertising and Discus for commenting, among other things. (If you are reading this on the Poynter website, you should sign up to get it delivered to your inbox.)

And that’s not some big secret. I took a cue from Searls and have been using a tool from the Electronic Frontier Foundation called Privacy Badger to monitor and selectively disable tracking ads and other invisible spies. Though the tool’s creators are upfront about its potential to break some pages, I’ve been using it for a week and only stumbled upon a single issue when I was signing up for a newsletter. I just turned off Privacy Badger for a moment and everything was fine.

As this privacy conversation continues (and thanks to well-connected groups like the Center for Humane Technology, I think it will), news organizations will have to grapple with how to balance our need to know about our audiences with the privacy that our audiences value.

In the meantime, I recommend downloading Privacy Badger or a similar tool (Searls shares more in his post) and informing yourself about who is tracking what. And then ponder what they might be able to do with that information.

SLACK TRACK: I’m going to stay on my soapbox for a minute. I’m a big fan of Slack, but I was dismayed about their decision to make it easier for employers to access all of their employees' data, including private messages. In the past, employers with paid accounts could export and access this data only if “compliance reports” were turned on, and only the data that was gathered after that functionality was activated. Slack also notified users whenever this happened. Now, any employer with a Plus or Enterprise account can download data without notifying employees. Buzzfeed shares how you can tell which account your company uses.

CSI: INTERWEBS: Happy International Fact-Checking Day! You should celebrate by learning from one of the best online investigation outlets in the world. Bellingcat has used tools and technology to file deep reports about big issues like Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the Syrian civil war. And we have a cheat sheet featuring some of their most-used tools.

#AD: Chances are you’ve come across an affiliate link or another type of advertisement on Instagram, YouTube or Pinterest. Chances are you didn’t realize it at the time. Internet celebrities and “influencers” are working with companies to create affiliate links, which is fine. But they keep failing to properly disclose it, which isn't. 

LEAVE YOUR DESK: I have to admit something. Despite co-leading a project called 40 Better Hours that dove deep into how to have a healthier, less stressful work week, I barely ever leave my desk. I don’t think I’ve eaten lunch in our break room for three months. I’ve become a sham, a fraud, a hypocrite! But I’m changing that with the help of an annoying digital shrub. I’ve been using an app called Plant Nanny to remind me to leave my desk and to drink water every hour or so. Try it but stay away from the “chicken plant.” He’s a jerk.

YES, PLEASE: Microsoft executives called for a Hippocratic Oath for artificial intelligence practitioners. Anil Dash reminded us that most technology education doesn’t include ethical training. Yonatan Zunger asks why computer science isn’t governed like other practical sciences, with ethical codes and boards. Humanity is standing on the precipice of something big. I’m inclined to listen to these guys.

GOOD NEWS: This newsletter is feeling a little doom-and-gloom. Here are a couple of things that delighted me last week. First, this story about a little lost dog that the Boston Globe turned into a digital picture book is innovative in about a million ways. It certainly joins Time’s Heln's First Year and National Geographic’s Hiking the Grand Canyon as one of my favorite stories from the past couple years. Second, the Outline explored a digital 3D pizza (plus a doughnut, loaf of bread and surprisingly compelling horned melon) that you can poke at on your phone. Why? Why not?

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of Poynter.org. He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
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