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Removing Secret Behavioral Marketing from WordPress’ AddToAny

2010 June 20

2012 Edit: Apparently AddToAny has been sold to a company called Lockerz, which has added additional tracking that is not stopped by the method described below.  The easiest solution to this problem remains to uninstall AddToAny.  But if you want to keep it anyway, you can get rid of Lockerz (and much other tracking software), with the WordPress plugin, WP DoNotTrack.



I occasionally talk here about privacy concerns, usually with an emphasis on protecting privacy, so imagine my surprise when I discovered this blog was without my knowledge using behavioral marketing – a targeted advertising tracking mechanism was embedded within!  This has since been repaired.  So that the same doesn’t happen to you, I thought it would be useful to share my experience combating this menace.  If you don’t run a blog, you can safely skip this one.

To give you some background, this blog operates the wordpress.org blogging platform.  One of the advantages of wordpress.org is the degree of customization that is possible with it – you can download any of over 10,000 free plugins to provide additional functionality.  For example, the social networking links on the top right are from a plugin called the Subscribe Sidebar, while the Facebook “like” button is added by April’s Facebook Like Button.

Up until yesterday, I also used the vanilla version of a plugin called AddToAny to create that nice big friendly Share button at the bottom of each post, to make it easier for you to post articles to whatever social network you might want to post them to.  There are a few other options to do this (like Sociable), but I found AddToAny to be the most versatile.  Unfortunately, it came with a hidden price – automatic enrollment into a behavioral marketing system called media6degrees.

I discovered this through the use of a Firefox add-on called TACO: Targeting Advertising Cookie Opt-Out, which gives users control to opt-out out of such marketing regardless of what web authors’ intentions are.  Imagine my surprise when I got behavioral marketing warnings on my own website!

TACO alone didn’t tell me what was causing the marketing calls home – just that media6degrees was the website being called.  A quick Google search later led me to a very informative post.  Here’s the short version:

And what’s media6degrees business you ask? Maybe they’re just providing the add-to-any author with statistics? Well, not exactly. This is what media6degrees writes on their website: “We deliver scalable custom audiences to major marketers by utilizing the online connections of their consumers.” So by using AddToAny, you’re providing media6degrees with data about your site’s visitors, which they can use to sell targeted communication to their customers.

If a company wants to use this kind of marketing to turn a profit, that’s certainly fine with me, but they need to be upfront about it.  I shouldn’t discover that I have adopted another company’s marketing platform through a 3rd-party program – it should be either a clear and straightforward setup option or an opt-in program.

Fortunately, the fix was easy, although unintuitive and mysteriously unmentioned on the AddToAny customization list.  Here are the instructions:

  1. Open the AddToAny Settings menu (found under Plugins)
  2. Scroll down to the textbox labeled Additional Options
  3. Add the following text:
    var a2a_config = a2a_config || {};
    a2a_config.no_3p = 1;

According to futtta’s blog, this will opt you out of current and all future tracking initiated through AddToAny.  Success!  If I hadn’t been able to get rid of this tracking, I would’ve dropped AddToAny in a heartbeat.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to make clear that I do track user access through Google Analytics.   I do this to see how popular different posts are more accurately than is possible with WordPress’ built-in tracking.  This means I get more information on what’s resonating with you, the readers.  But this isn’t used to deliver marketing – it’s used to deliver better content.

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. June 29, 2010

    I would like to take a moment to discuss some of the concerns that have been brought up in this thread. First and foremost, I encourage everyone to read our privacy policy here: http://media6degrees.com/about/privacy-policy/. You’ll notice that each page on our website contains an “opt out” button, which we suggest consumers use if they are uncomfortable with the terms of our privacy policy.

    We also wanted to clear up any confusion there might be about our business model and the type of information Media6Degrees collects from consumers. We do not collect any type of personally identifiable information and never scrape social network sites for data. Just to reiterate: we have no idea who you are, what you like and any other type of personal information you might make public on a social network.

    Protecting consumer privacy and ensuring online advertising is done in a respectful manner are two vital points of importance for Media6Degrees. In addition to our membership in the Network Advertising Initiative (http://www.networkadvertising.org/), we serve on the board of directors and are Truste certified (http://www.truste.com/). We were a launch partner for the NAI’s Consumer Opt Out Protector Add-On for Firefox (http://networkadvertising.org/managing/protector_license.asp) and passed 2009 NAI compliance without any issue.

    We’ve also played a pivotal role in the development of the NAI’s upcoming Enhanced Notice Program and are excited about the level of control it provides consumers, as it brings information and choice from the small print directly into the ad. An example of enhanced noticed can be found here: http://green.yahoo.com/living-green/ (click the Ad Choice icon above the ad).

    Hopefully this helps allay concerns about our business and our methods.

    Best,
    The Media6Degrees Team

  2. July 4, 2010

    AddtoAny are unbelievable…I don’t trust them one inch after that and I’ve deleted their plugin from my site. What’s to say the alternatives aren’t doing the same?

    And to optout you have to type code!! Even if you can, it’s ridiculous!

  3. July 4, 2010

    @Media6 -

    I certainly appreciate you coming here to explain your position, but there a few things that are troubling to me about your response.

    #1: The opt-out button applies to people following Media6 links, which assumes 1) that people on a random webpage with a Share link will think to follow the privacy policy links before clicking and 2) that this should be the responsibility of the consumer. When I mouseover that Share link above, there is no mention of “click here for privacy options” or even a small print “privacy” link. You leave it up to the site visitor to hunt down such information, which is not feasible or reasonable for most visitors.

    #2: Considering #1 above, you are implicitly saying that the responsibility for opt-outs falls with the site visitor, and not with the site creator. My visitors will hold me responsible for whatever my site does, and I should be fully informed about any marketing strategies that are being used when I install a plugin. Even a simple radio button “Yes Marketing / No Marketing” would accomplish this. This is where my disquiet originated.

    #3: You state that you wanted to explain your business model by saying, “We do not collect any type of personally identifiable information and never scrape social network sites for data.” That doesn’t explain it at all – what do you collect, then?

  4. July 13, 2010

    Richard,

    Thank you for your comments. AddtoAny is a great product and the company has been an excellent partner of ours. In exchange for the data they help us collect we help them by providing funds that can be used for further investment in the product.

    I thought it would be a good idea to respond to each of your points.

    #1 – Your point is well taken. This is the reason why we are one of the companies helping to roll out “enhanced notice”. This is an initiative where every single advertisement served by our company will have a link where readers can a) find out who is serving the ad and what data was used and b) opt out of behavioral tracking and advertising. Back in January, The New York Times wrote a piece about the industry’s initiative (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/27/business/media/27adco.html). Notice and choice are incredibly important for any reader. Until this rolls out please feel free to direct your readers to the NAI opt out page (http://www.networkadvertising.org/managing/opt_out.asp) or recommend that they install the TACO plug in.

    #2 – I think a “yes/no marketing” option is a fantastic suggestion and will definitely shoot a note to the AddtoAny folks.

    #3 – Media6Degrees utilizes data to build connections between browsers. When our pixel loads on a web page, we collect the URL (which is anonymized). We do not know (or need to know) the context of the page. We then assign that browser a unique ID. We do not collect name, age, gender, interest, “friends”, location, or any other information. We do not know a single thing about a reader. The only data we know is that a browser visited a URL . We then look to see if any other browsers visited that URL. If so we log a connection.

    I hope this information is helpful. If you have any additional questions or concerns please do not hesitate to contact me at andrew@media6degrees.com.

    Best,

    Andrew Pancer
    COO
    Media6Degrees

  5. April 18, 2011

    We had similar privacy concern issues for our clients with both AddToAny and ShareThis, and we finally ended up building our own social share icons plugin, Trackable Social Share Icons. It tracks in Google Analytics event tracking, but user data is not transmitted to us or any 3rd party. It’s also very customizable in how the icons appear; however, there is not a single button that expands to show all social options.

    We just put it up on WordPress for free download here: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/trackable-social-share-icons/

    If you get a chance to check it out, I’d love to hear what you think.

  6. October 31, 2011

    Looks like I’ve come a little late to the party … sorry about that.

    @media6 – I think the point is NOT whether you are good or not when an ad is served, but the basic fact that some kind of data collection is happening on our OWN sites that we’re not aware of, because the method is hidden within plugins which we install. I keep seeing media6 flash up on my site when refreshing (I’m on the lookout for things that might be slowing down loading time) and had no idea WHY this destination was being contacted.

    I’ve only worked it out by a combination of luck and follow-up by coming here. I now have to look carefully through all of my plugins to work out which one is responsible. IF I want to trade use of a free plugin for marketing activity it should be a conscious choice, not a ‘backdoor’ fete accomplis. Not necessarily Media6′s fault – it’s the plugin writer(s) but I do suspect some degree (6?) of complicity, even if it’s just through silent acceptance.

  7. March 22, 2012

    Hi Dennis,

    I really thank you for sharing the privacy plugin to prevent 3rd parties from tracking and data mining web visitors.

  8. boby permalink
    May 16, 2014

    Past 2 years since this blog post and AddToAny plugin still has Spyware tracking and sending info to 3rd parties without user’s consent. I recommend everyone to go on wordpress and Rate this plugin 1 star until author learns to play fair with its users and by default opt out from this spyware and gives the option to opt in with a checkbox button.

    • May 18, 2014

      Have taken your suggestion and added a 1 star rating and a review detailing why. Notice that although you’ve given a similar review you’ve actually rated it 5 stars. Suspect this was an error! :-)

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