When is it okay to flat out lie to your users? I would argue: Never. But the website of one of the world’s most watched sources of news, CNN, does just that.
Near the bottom of every article is a section called “We recommend” and “From around the web”. These sections list about six links to other articles either on CNN itself, other Turner properties, or simply as a paid referral service for selected partners. So what’s my beef with this? It’s not the targeted marketing, it’s the outright lie I noticed they make when you hover over any of those links with your mouse.
For some background, I’m a huge dissident against outbound link tracking. It’s fundamentally the same as gluing a GPS tracking device to your forehead and giving a a tracking device to the website you’re visiting. I have a problem with it because I think there is a fundamental freedom that is eroded by this technology – the freedom to consume information without being tracked for doing so. Do I have the right to pick up a magazine and browse through it without giving someone my telephone number? I would say yes — I think it is a natural right to be able to consume information without having your consumption observed.
Okay, fair enough, therefore I should expect that if I am surfing just CNN’s website, if I disable cookies, and if I turn on my do not track header, I should expect not to be tracked, right? No, and the reason is I cannot find out when I’m still on the CNN site to only stay within it. The reason is CNN has specifically coded it’s site to lie to me about when I’m staying within it or navigating away. For an example, if I were to hover over one example link in these two sections, I see the following in my browser status bar:
I right-clicked the link in Chrome and copied the URL. Then curiously I noticed the link read differently in the browser status bar when hovering over it, this time reading:
Youch, what’s that, and why did it change? On closer inspection, by viewing the source of the page, I can see the target href of the link is exactly as reproduced above, going to traffic.outbrain.com. I peeked at some other URL’s in the same section that I had not yet left-clicked or right-clicked and noticed this:
Well, at least it’s just CNN at fault here. At least no one else would stoop to such shady tactics. Surely not Google (/url) or Facebook (l.php).. no, definitely not…