Report: Have publishers banned Facebook trackers from their pages after the Cambridge Analytica scandal?

Data scientists from Ghostery and Cliqz examined the prevalence of Facebook’s tracking scripts on the five largest US news sites. The results are sobering.

Björn GreifEditor

After the New York Times and the Guardian reported a massive data leakage revealed by former Cambridge Analytica employee Chris Wylie, Facebook’s Marc Zuckerberg got into hot water. Journalists and experts expressed and echoed their criticism to an unprecedented level. However, the news media are in the same boat. Most of them have been allowing tracking scripts from Facebook (and others) on their websites to benefit from the social network’s advertising revenue, analytics data and demographic insights. After their outrage about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the question is:

Have publishers loosened their interdependent relations with Facebook?

Data scientists from Cliqz and its subsidiaries Ghostery and compared the prevalence of Facebook’s tracking scripts on the largest news outlets before (week 11 of 2018) and after (week 13 of 2018) the scandal. The result: Not a single of the leading news publishers banned Facebook trackers from their sites.

The Cliqz team took a closer look at Facebook trackers on the top 5 news websites in the US: All of them leak user data to Facebook trackers and that hasn’t changed since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. There are different grades of Facebook-tracking on those pages, though. users are tracked the most intensively (Facebook trackers on 95.18 percent of page loads), whereas visitors leak relatively few data to Facebook (Facebook trackers on 3.04 percent of page loads).

News publishers allow Facebook to track their users.

Jeremy Tillman, Director of Product at Ghostery comments on the results of the research:

Unfortunately, tracking users is common practice and news websites are no better than anyone else. In fact, there is a close interdependence between publishers, advertisers and Big Tech. For starters, news publishers rely on Google and Facebook as important traffic sources and depend on revenue provided by their advertising platforms. Beyond the major players, publishers also use a myriad of third-party advertisers, analytics providers, and social sharing tools to track and monetize its users. This interdependency comes at a cost, though, because big and small companies alike want something in return services, and often the currency of choice is user data.
I don’t think that publishers will voluntarily change this data-exchanging relationship, and they certainly haven’t done so in the weeks since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It’s possible that new regulations for investor anxiety will force companies like Facebook and Google to dramatically loosen their grip on users’ data, but I’m not very confident that this will happen anytime soon. However, there is a glimmer of hope that the European Union will use the Cambridge Analytica fiasco as a cautionary lesson that industry self-regulation doesn’t work and will implement the new GDPR privacy law to more strictly enforce user privacy.

Facebook operates a variety of tracking scripts such as Atlas, Facebook Pixel, Facebook Beacon, Facebook Connect or Facebook Custom Audience. Altogether, Facebook trackers reach 27.1 percent of all worldwide page loads. Facebook, however isn’t the largest tracker out there. Google’s tracking scripts reach 60.3 of all page loads.

What to do against tracking?

One way to check Facebook’s (and other Big Tech operators’) tracking reach on user data is the website, which visualizes monthly tracker statistics based on anonymous data provided by Cliqz and Ghostery users. visualizes monthly tracker statistics. visualizes monthly tracker statistics.

Every internet user can easily check tracking on their favorite news site as it happens: They just need to add the Ghostery extension to their desktop browser, visit any news website and see who’s tracking them on any particular page. Or they use the Cliqz Browser with built-in AI-powered anti-tracking which is available for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS free of charge.