Website Opt-Out Practices Ate Our Data and Broke Us

It’s time to confront the tech industry’s data collection excesses

Photo: Jason Dent/Unsplash

Is there anything more valuable to each of us than our identity? Not the piece of plastic with our driver’s license on it but the details of who we are — our personalities, interests, likes and dislikes, familial connections, hometowns, and current homes — all those bits and pieces that coalesce into a clearly defined picture of you.

We cherish our identities while simultaneously giving almost every bit of them away.

It’s not our fault. We’ve spent almost two decades ignoring opt-out buttons, those tiny squares asking if you want to share your name and email, receive newsletters, or allow for constant location tracking. Essentially agreeing to share points, clicks, and data bits with abandon.

A decade ago, I wrote that opt-out schemes were fundamentally flawed:

Opt-out schemes often fail. They do so for a variety of reasons:

People don’t read them.

People don’t understand them.

People ignore them and think that counts as saying no.

Back then the idea that Facebook and other online entities could build a rich profile of you based on this action and subsequent opt-out tracking seemed ludicrous. Now, we’re confronted at every digital turn by what the larger tech corpus knows about us.

Thanks to the ongoing Techlash, the public, government, and media are finally wide awake to the dangers of unfettered data collection, and the potential for substantive tech regulations is no longer a distant mirage. Even so, near-term solutions to staunch the data flow are few and far between.

It’s not that people don’t know what to do. This week, the New York Times’ Editorial Board took the unusual step of writing an op-ed calling for the replacement of opt-out technology with opt-in options.

One straightforward solution is to let people opt in to data collection on apps and websites. Today, with few exceptions, loads of personal data are collected automatically by default unless consumers take action to opt out of the practice — which, in most cases, requires dropping the service entirely.

Apple’s upcoming iOS 14.5 will feature its new App Transparency Tracking, which will force app makers to divulge data they plan on collecting before you even install it.

Asking for permission on smartphones isn’t all that revolutionary. Notice how every app that wants to use your camera, photos, microphone, and location must ask before they do so.

And yet, shifting the entire tech industry to an opt-in stance would have a much more radical impact, especially if it applies to not only apps and services you plan on installing and using, but those you already use.

Imagine opening Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon, and even local services like Microsoft Office and finding that each one must ask anew for access to any of your information and if they had to clarify what, if anything they planned to share with third-party partners. All those permission boxes would be presented unchecked. You’d finally have the choice of opting in (or not). Granted, the way many of these platforms work would be fundamentally altered, but the action would be like a massive reset — a data enema, if you will — for the tech and data-collection industry.

I doubt that will happen, but the writing is on the wall for those building products featuring prechecked boxes permitting them to collect your data. It’s time to offer those boxes — all of them — unchecked and let us decide the fate of our data and identities.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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