What Weblining Means For You and Your Online Privacy
Our Internet behavior, from clicks on banner advertisements to specific Google searches, is tracked in various ways, whether or not we have any direct notification from those watching us. This phenomenon becomes especially apparent when we see Web ads that seem to know us by our demographic, search habits, online purchases, relationship statuses and other identifying data we may want to keep private.
Called “data profiling,” this practice is often employed by Internet marketers who purchase information about your online activity to deliver effective, targeted ad campaigns tailored just for you. Although not exactly nefarious in principle, the use of data profiling can lead to weblining, which, in turn, could lead to online discrimination of sorts.
In this article, we explore the history of weblining, its effects and what you can do to keep you and your online privacy hidden.
Redlining has morphed into weblining in the digital age
Following the National Housing Act of 1934, the formal practice of “redlining” was implemented in the United States by commercial entities to separate real estate markets by socioeconomic, racial and other demographic categories. Frequently employed until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and further prohibited by the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, redlining:
- prevented residents of certain neighborhoods from receiving mortgage loans,
- persuaded retailers to establish their businesses in more affluent areas,
- and encouraged the denial of employment, insurance, health care and other essential services to individuals and families based on location.
Redlining is outlawed today, but weblining now exists in the digital age and can be used both to promote services to one type of demographic and to deemphasize the same services to another. More sophisticated than ever before, weblining occurs as a direct result of data profiling, which aggregates a rich series of personal, Internet-based information to determine who you are. Though difficult to prove and the subject of only a handful of lawsuits, weblining does happen, though how often is uncertain.
Keep this in mind when considering you and your online privacy. In the end, weblining means that certain individuals will have more access to — and possibly pay less for — products and services than others.
How to protect yourself from data profiling and weblining
Under the online radar for years, weblining has not yet become a household word. However, the practice of data profiling, at least conceptually, is immediately apparent to anyone who has logged in to Facebook and seen advertisements that speak directly to their interests; conducted a search on “heirloom tomatoes” earlier in the day and later glimpsed ads for wholesale vegetables on a news website; or found, on a consistent basis, email in one’s spam folder for online personals sites.
How do they know you’re single? The following practical methods can be employed to prevent your sensitive data from ending up in the wrong hands:
- Only share certain information on certain websites. For example, if you log in to Yahoo! only to read and send email, there’s no need to have a robust, comprehensive Yahoo! profile. In fact, the only required information you need to provide is your full name and display name, both of which you can should set to private.
- Beware of “fan” pages. In the old days of Facebook, becoming a “fan” of a certain band, company or object (such as “water”), was a fun and easy way to tell your friends what you like and to keep up with the latest news from the fan page. In reality, “fanning” or “liking” a page on Facebook or, worse yet, authorizing an unfamiliar application can sometimes give the owner access to your personal data, with unpredictable results. Be careful what you “like.”
- Log out before you surf. Whether on your email, Facebook, LinkedIn, online banking or any other account that contains your personal information, it’s always a good idea to log out before you browse the Internet. Your searches can easily get tied into whatever else you may be looking at or just looked at. If possible, open a new browser window, or better, a different Internet browser altogether before you conduct your search.
- Consider using applications to protect your privacy. A third-party application, such as TrackMeNot, can also be used to prevent Internet marketers and data profilers from obtaining data or your search habits. TrackMeNot and similar programs install directly on your Internet browser and conduct random searches that act as red herrings for data profiling programs, resulting in a highly inaccurate account of your online activity. Other services, like Anonymizer, ensure Internet privacy by hiding your IP address from anyone who may be able to trace it.
Today, proactive online behavior is essential to prevent the disclosure of that which should be kept private and to protect you and your online privacy.