Rhodri Marsden: Who on earth wants to share their web history?

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

In a recent episode of the excruciating but glorious new YouTube series featuring Alan Partridge, Mid Morning Matters, the self-absorbed Norfolk DJ conducts an obsequious interview with a local internet entrepreneur. "We're all familiar with computer terminology," he says. "Cookies, download, clear cache, do not filter results, clear history..." The awkward pause hanging in the air at the end of Alan's sentence nicely completes an already resonant gag. Most people browsing the web are aware of the dark secrets stored in their browsing history, and many have experienced that nagging unease when you think someone might have accessed, is accessing or is about to access the full, unexpurgated list. It's enough to make even Alan squirm.

We don't even have to be talking pornography or videos of extreme right-wing rallies. The browser history is, by its very nature, an intensely personal thing that reflects all manner of thoughts that flit across our minds. For example, this morning I've played the music video to "You Can Dance" by Gonzales about eight times; that's because I think it's a great tune, but anyone exploring my browsing history might decide that it's because I like watching the bottoms of the girls in the video. It's not. I can't prove it, but it's not. Honest.

Our apparent unease at sharing this information makes the appearance of three new services explicitly designed to, er, share your web browsing data look a bit puzzling. The website dscover.me is already up and running; you sign up, install a browser plug-in, and as you cavort gaily across the internet your paper trail is detailed in black and white for anyone who you might want to share it with. The site gets around some of the several million privacy issues by recording only visits to websites that appear in their relatively benign whitelist – a list that you can add to. So your visits to The Independent, Wikipedia or YouTube, say, would be shared, while your visits to dating websites wouldn't.

Two other services, Sitesimon and Voyurl, are launching imminently; Sitesimon prefers to use a blacklist, instead – ie, you specify all the sites that you would rather weren't recorded. (Good luck with keeping that up-to-date.) The question that immediately leaps to mind is: why on earth would anyone want to do this? Well, our growing propensity to share just about everything we're up to almost makes this a natural extension of websites such as Stumbleupon – the only difference is that we're passively rather than actively sharing specific things. Of course, merely glancing at a webpage doesn't automatically mean we give it our seal of approval, but the data collected by these sites could provide interesting snapshots of what's popular online.

That data is, of course, valuable to websites, too. Building a vivid picture of the kinds of things we're interested in allows them to force-feed us a bunch of personally tailored links to click on. Google already does it: if you use its web history feature at google.com/history, your browsing habits are taken into account every time you perform a search, theoretically generating better results. Facebook does it, too: those navy-blue "like" buttons that are strewn around the web these days double as a tracking tool for Facebook, which can subsequently dish up what it deems to be appropriate advertisements for us to be enticed by, or ignore.

The full details of our browsing history are like some golden fleece. For years programmers have toyed with JavaScript code to attempt to "sniff" its contents – something that's only recently been blocked in the latest versions of Firefox, Safari and Chrome. But now we're being asked to just surrender it, and while it's an audacious, barefaced request, at least dscover.me and its competitors are being upfront rather then burying it in four pages of terms and conditions.

What's unclear is whether we'll buy into it. Services such as Timelope and Hooeey already had a crack at this years ago, and it's telling that Timelope is dead and Hooeey looks dormant. Still. Never underestimate our new-found enthusiasm for letting people know what we're doing with our lives, he said, pondering whether to tweet what he's about to have for lunch. (Poached eggs.)

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