De Correspondent is one of the few journalism websites in the world that’s entirely ad-free. You won’t find scores of advertisers looking over your shoulder here. Nor do we collect personal information about our readers to sell to interested companies.
Though we are ad-free, we aren’t, unfortunately, tracker-free. Why not, some of you asked. After all, our correspondents Maurits Martijn and Dimitri Tokmetzis have been writing about the importance of privacy and the dangers posed by trackers for three years now, culminating in their book Je hebt wél iets te verbergen (“So you think you have nothing to hide?”). So isn’t it a little hypocritical to allow trackers on our own site?
As De Correspondent’s chief technology officer, I’d like to explain the decision-making process that went into our use of these trackers – and, more importantly, the steps we’ll be taking to get rid of them. Because behind every tracker at De Correspondent lies a trade-off – sometimes a financial one, sometimes a practical one.
And now, three years after the launch of De Correspondent, we’re eager to put those trade-offs back under the microscope.
Why De Correspondent uses trackers
If trackers are so controversial, why haven’t we done more to keep them off our website?
The chief answer to that is a simple one: manpower.
Our team of developers – the people who design, code, and manage our website – is small. It would take them until the year 2300 to build everything we (and you) want. Here are just a few items on our wish list:
- Better notifications, including alerts when someone responds to your contribution.
- The option to read De Correspondent offline.
- A custom ticketing system that doesn’t rely on third parties.
- More ways to personalize your member profile.
The full list is of course many times longer than this. And that means we have to set priorities. Every day, we have to choose which items are most important or most pressing. And that means others have to wait in line. One of those cooling its heels? Tackling our trackers.
What trackers are active on De Correspondent?
Our regular readers know how important graphics and design are to us. We regularly share documentaries, use visualizations to help explain complex facts and figures, and publish a handful of podcasts each week. And we present all this to you in De Correspondent’s distinctive house style, which we’ve designed with meticulous care.
Trackers are how free services recoup their costs, namely by capturing our surfing behavior and selling this information to advertisers
To serve you all this content, we use services such as YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, LocalFocus, Adobe Typekit, and Google Analytics. These free services have one major disadvantage: they use trackers. Trackers are how free services recoup their costs, namely by capturing our surfing behavior and selling this information to interested companies.
To get rid of these trackers, we’ll have to switch to different solutions. No more using others’ free services; instead we’ll need to put in the time and effort to develop, host, and maintain our own – and shell out for the accompanying expense.
Here’s how we plan to do that.
The mother of all trackers: Google Analytics
Let me start with the world’s most notorious tracker: Google Analytics. Nearly every company makes use of this free service. Using Google Analytics, you can analyze how long people spend reading a specific story, for instance. The obvious question is: if Google’s trackers are so intrusive, why don’t we switch to a different service?
We could, of course, but in many cases we’d just be shifting the problem elsewhere. We know Google’s goals are commercial, but how can we guarantee that an alternative provider’s aren’t?
The only real solution is to host our analytics software ourselves. If it runs on our own machines, there won’t be any outside interests to serve.
Luckily, we’ve found analytics software that meets our requirements. We’re currently fine-tuning and testing this platform (for those interested: it’s an open-source package called Piwik), to make sure it can handle De Correspondent’s large numbers of monthly visitors and pageviews. It costs a substantial chunk of change to host and maintain analytics software ourselves, but we believe it’s worth the expense.
If all goes according to plan, within a few weeks we’ll have taken the first step toward saying goodbye to one of our most nefarious trackers.
Google also tracks your video behavior...
Longtime readers will be familiar with our videos, such as the documentaries A day in the life of a sniper fighting ISIS and Rio Doce, the river of death. Some of the videos we feature are our own productions. Others have previously appeared elsewhere and are a perfect fit for our stories. The films are usually hosted at YouTube or Vimeo. And those services load trackers. Vimeo loads the Google Analytics tracker, and YouTube loads DoubleClick’s.
Here, too, we can partially solve the problem by hosting videos ourselves. We’ve already done that for the videos that top our Project 101 pages. The other videos we’ve produced ourselves will soon follow.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks isn’t technical, but legal
Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve one of the biggest stumbling blocks. A filmmaker who uploads a documentary to YouTube grants that network permission to distribute it. We can’t just download these films off the internet and share them. So we’re almost forced to use YouTube – trackers and all.
Luckily, we’ve found an interim solution. Right now, videos from external sources such as YouTube or Vimeo (and their associated trackers) load as soon as you open an article. Soon we’ll display a screenshot from the video first, instead of the videos themselves. The video won’t load until you click on it. That puts the choice to watch the video, and thus load a tracker, more squarely in your control.
...and your audio behavior, too
What’s true for video is just as true for the audio we present in the form of podcasts. For these, we use the online service SoundCloud. When the SoundCloud widget is displayed in an article, trackers from Google Analytics and Beacon load along with it. We’re now exploring whether we can also leave the choice to load these trackers to you, and if so, what it will take to get there.
Fonts: tracker-free since last week
Then there’s the font in which you’re reading this article. Because the fonts we use aren’t standard fare on every computer, we use Adobe’s Typekit service. And there’s a tracker attached to its use.
Just imagine what it would look like if every magazine and newspaper used only Arial or Verdana
There’s an oft-touted possible solution: just use general fonts that everyone has, like Arial or Verdana. But in a world where everyone is clamoring for attention, it’s important to have your own distinctive voice, not only in terms of content but also in terms of style. At De Correspondent, we carefully craft the way we present ourselves and our stories. Just imagine what it would look like if every magazine, newspaper, and logo used only Arial or Verdana.
When we launched De Correspondent in 2013, there was no ready solution for font trackers. But one has recently emerged. Here, too, self-hosting is the answer. That wasn’t an option back then: the licensing model for our font – Bree – didn’t permit hosting the font yourself. And it cost a fortune to buy broad rights to use a font. Fortunately the licensing industry has evolved with the times, and we’ve now found a way to host our fonts ourselves.
We made the switch last Wednesday, and Adobe Typekit’s tracker is now a thing of the past.
Google’s in your graphics, too
Because we value the ability to include visualizations in our articles, we’ve embraced LocalFocus. This tool enables journalists to create clear, simple graphics without having to rely on a designer or developer. But LocalFocus is also eager to track the use of its service, and for that it uses – you guessed it – Google Analytics.
Because we’d like to keep using this excellent service – just without the tracker – we’ll be sitting down with them to find a custom solution. As always, we’ll keep you posted on our progress.
Trackers that come along for the ride as we monitor our servers
To ensure that our website loads quickly, we deploy multiple servers. To monitor these servers’ performance, we’ve recently started using New Relic. This software lets us keep a close eye on how our most critical servers are doing. It shows us whether they’re overloaded, for instance, and tells us where hot spots in the code are unnecessarily slowing the time it takes an article to load.
But New Relic adds some information to every page it analyzes. We’re going to explore whether it only adds information that’s truly necessary. We’ll report back on our findings here, too.
Attentive readers who’ve taken an occasional peek under our website’s hood will have noticed there were three additional trackers in several places in our code. These were Google TagManager, Visual Website Optimizer, and Hotjar. We used these trackers to conduct A/B testing experiments. A/B testing lets you see whether a new feature (A) works better than the old one (B).
We no longer use these services, so we’re deleting them from our code. We’ve already completely removed Visual Website Optimizer and Hotjar. Google TagManager will soon follow.
In the coming months we’ll keep you posted on our progress toward better privacy at De Correspondent.
—Translated from Dutch by Grayson Morris and Erica Moore
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