Ghostery Tracker Tax Report Shows How Fast The Web Could Be

Chris DeGraw / Digital Trends

(in) Secure is a weekly column that looks at the rapidly escalating topic of cybersecurity.

Trackers are something that most internet users tolerate, although few enjoy it very much. In an age when Facebook and other online entities are called out for their privacy concerns, trackers are certainly part of that conversation. But a new study from anti-tracking extension maker Ghostery is also concerned about the ability of trackers to slow down web browsing itself.

Hidden behind the pretty facade of modern websites, trackers are an important part of the web browsing experience. From managing personalized ads to integrating social media, they have an important role to play in how the internet works today, but is it all at the expense of a fast and efficient internet?

The tracker tax

Ghostery is a decidedly anti-tracker tool (it is not the only one), in that it allows Internet users to easily block whatever they want and to anonymize the information collected by those they do not want. not. However, with his new “Tracker Tax” study, Ghostery looked at the performance benefits of doing so, as well as the implicit privacy implications.

“We were pretty confident that websites work better and faster when trackers get blocked,” Jeremy Tillman, director of product management at Ghostery, told Digital Trends. “The purpose of the study was really to try to quantify this impact. Is it a minor thing, is it somewhat rare, or is it a major thing that is prevalent? “

Jeremy Tillman, Director of Product Management at Ghostery

The study focused on the top 500 sites listed by Alexa, which they believe are where the vast majority of US traffic spends its time. Additionally, Ghostery has identified them as websites that implement a lot of third-party tracking technologies.

The results were also quite striking. Ghostery found that just under 90% of the websites studied contained some form of third-party web tracking. These trackers, whether small or numerous, have also been found to have a significant impact on page load speed.

Average page load times were around 20 seconds, but when all trackers were blocked, that time dropped to just under nine seconds.

To draw these load times, Ghostery used a bespoke web crawler whose use would be comparable to that of a mainstream browser like Chrome or Firefox. However, the web crawler did not look at websites the same way a human would. It was all about a “complete” state of building a website, where there was nothing left to load. In reality, many sites would be up and running before then, but that, Tillman says, is half the problem.

“The truth is, a lot of websites are never that functional, in large part because the trackers on those pages keep loading,” he explained. “Many sites out there, if you go there without Ghostery, it’s almost like a slow leak because they […] never stop communicating with their servers and for some of these sites the resulting slowness […] is persistent and never goes away.

Ghostery’s study suggests that some sites never quite finish loading. In the case of the slower sites – Ghostery calls,, and as the worst offenders – they can take up to two minutes to register as “full”.

“A lot of websites are never that functional, in large part because the trackers on those pages keep loading. “

Even if these sites become functional for the user before then, Tillman suggests that there is still an unnecessary loss in website load speed, responsiveness, and end user system resources.

“New ad placements are loaded, new trackers are loaded, information is constantly sent back and forth, so it’s a constant and persistent drag on the processing power of the browser,” he said. .

Free life tracker

Obviously, Ghostery’s intention with this study is to highlight not only the impact of trackers, but the effectiveness of his own tracker blocker tool in addressing the problem. But do we really want to live in a world entirely devoid of trackers? What type of sites did the study find that do not have any tracers?

“Craigslist would fall into this category,” Tillman said. “If you’ve been there, it’s almost like a website from the 1990s, just a bunch of hyperlinks.”

However, no one is suggesting that all websites should be like Craigslist. Indeed, Tillman said that in some cases, trackers can provide benefits to people. Although these are usually website owners, rather than website visitors.

“It’s hard to say that a tracker is good or that a tracker is bad,” he said. “There are some that can kind of improve the functionality of a page. Many website owners benefit from this out-of-the-box nature of trackers, so without having to build this feature yourself, within minutes you can have a full video player using third-party technology.

“It’s hard to say that a tracker is good or that a tracker is bad.”

While these widgets can provide a quick “upgrade” to a website’s functionality, is it worth their cost in terms of privacy and performance affected by the trackers that come with them?

“In situations where a user gets a deeper and more meaningful user experience, it can be said that these trackers provide utility to the user,” he said. “[That said,] from a user’s perspective, are trackers good? This is another question.

Meeting in the middle

Often times, the modern web browsing experience can feel like a battle between two camps: website owners and users. One party wants to make money with their service, track their usage, and keep improving it. The other wants to use websites with the least possible intrusion into their privacy or finances.

Both parties are quite justifiable in their objectives, but the difficulty comes from their opposition. One cannot exist without the other and in some cases many modern web features require the use of trackers to facilitate much of what we rely on as basic internet functionality. How then can we create a website that does not affect the privacy or performance of web users, while still providing website owners with the tools to manage their sites in the future?

phantom trust function

Ghostery’s solution is the “trust” system, which allows users to whitelist sites they want to support by allowing them to run trackers and ads.

“The example we’re giving from home is if your friend has a blog and you want to support them, you can use Ghostery’s trust feature to do just that,” Tillman said. If a publisher or website owner has some sort of very clear exchange of value in mind, as long as it makes it easier for the user and the user says yes, then there is nothing wrong with that.

Ultimately, Tillman said, Ghostery would like more websites to be upfront and honest with users about how content is monetized. After all, if a website is open access, the operating costs have to be recouped somewhere, whether it’s through advertisements, the sale of user data, or something a little different like that. ‘cryptocurrency mining.

“Most of our users […] help publishers find ways to make money.

“For the most part, most of our users, more than the average user, help publishers find ways to make money,” he said. “The problem is, most of them are opposed to the models available today. They oppose the data collection practices (especially the implicit data collection) of the website, as well as the forced advertising model, especially when associated with poor website performance and technologies really scary ad targeting.

While a solution to today’s climate of web browsing tracking will require the cooperation of users and website owners on a larger scale than is currently imagined, Ghostery, of course, has recommendations for those who wish to avoid the “tracking fee” in the meantime.

“I recommend them to use a browser like Cliqz [developed by Ghostery’s parent company] and a tool like Ghostery and these two together provide the most comprehensive privacy protection solution, ”Tillman said, while noting the availability of Ghostery extensions for Chrome, Firefox and mobile platforms like iOS and Android .

“Fundamentally [people] must be proactive to protect their own privacy, ”he said. “Relying on government regulations and self-regulation by companies like Facebook, users will never be fully protected and I think that creates a false sense of security. Using tools to protect your privacy is the best and most direct way to do this.

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