Web Analytics Firms Defend Cookies

In hopes of distancing itself from adware and spyware companies, the Web Analytics Association--a trade group of analytics firms--this week issued a statement against spyware that included the pledge that members will open their practices and policies to third-party review.

The association--which includes major analytics firms like Webtrends, ClickTracks, and Urchin--also said it was committed to educating consumers about the benefits of cookies, and combating the "myth" that analytics companies constitute spyware.

The Web Analytics Association maintains that cookies that track consumers online are benign, and don't have the potential to collect personally identifiable information.

The move comes as analytics companies and other online businesses that rely on third-party cookies to track consumer activity find themselves increasingly under attack. Voices in the tech space, like Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg and tech guru and Slate.com writer Adam Penenberg, have sharply condemned companies that place tracking cookies on consumers' computers.



One argument against tracking cookies is that marketers and analytics vendors install these cookies on consumers' computers without their consent, and then use the cookies to obtain valuable information about them. Even if the information is anonymous, they argue, the cookie-installers nonetheless arguably obtained it without consumers' permission.

Last month, speaking before an audience of about 300 people at a meeting of the Anti-Spyware Coalition in Washington, D.C., Mossberg blasted the "supposedly legitimate companies who are under the delusion that it's okay to force their way into our computers for advertising, marketing, and research purposes."

He also scoffed at efforts by analytics companies to exempt cookies from regulation by legislators. "It's as if all the pickpockets in New York got together and formed a union and they went to the police and city council and said: 'You know, we're not as bad as the guys who mug you in the alley and break into your house and hold you at gunpoint,'" Mossberg said.

Writing in Slate.com, tech guru Penenberg last November called for third-party cookies to be abolished altogether.

But Web analytics firms say cookies, which are used to track users' activity on individual sites, are being unfairly demonized. "We kind of see it as an unfair, getting tagged with this sort of suspicion of folks that are doing bad things," said Andrew Edwards, director of the Web Analytics Association and a managing partner at Technology Leaders, a Web analytics vendor and consulting firm.

Edwards added that anti-spyware firms have also grouped Web analytics cookies in with spyware and adware unfairly, ultimately leading consumers to believe cookies are harmful. "The anti-spyware companies out there, because of their marketing approach, have sort of snagged Web analytics cookies into the batch of things that they claim to delete on behalf of their customers," he said.

Software removal companies say they just provide the information to consumers, who make their own decisions about what to keep or remove from their hard drives. Sam Curry--vice president for security management at Computer Associates, which manufactures a spyware removal tool--said his firm's tool does flag Web analytics cookies for deletion, but provides consumers with information to make their decision whether to retain the cookies or not.

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