Resisting the Panopticon: Our Policies Change

Google's new networkIn yesterday’s post about Google’s announced service changes, titled A Panopticon Matures, we pointed out that starting March 1st the search giant will consolidate information about online activities across all proprietary platforms and fold it into real-name Google profiles. Known as ‘One policy, one Google experience,’ the new service changes are intended to create a social search experience that “does what you need, when you want it to.” Given those changes, we’re making some under-the-hood changes in how we interact with users. Hint: We’re not doing evil.Google logoGoogle’s service changes are extensive and have already generated considerable consternation from privacy advocates, industry observers, and tech media alike. Yesterday the search giant aggregated information to guess about ad placement; but tomorrow it will learn much more about you – the things that you like and the people who you know. As the ACLU says, “Google is following you.”

What’s next? Will Google bring its algorithms to bear on that more complex problem –  anticipating what you will think before you think it? We not only think so, Google says so:

“A more consistent user experience across Google might mean that we give you more accurate spelling suggestions because you’ve typed them before. Or maybe we can tell you that you’ll be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and the local traffic conditions.”

With so many ‘signals’ from across so many users from so many platforms, the quantitative-driven Google believes it can make more than an educated guess about what you’ll need. We believe they can.

Consequently, Better Bike has decided that it’s better not to collect any information at all from our site visitors that might feed into Google’s data banks. Our changes are minor and under-the-hood, and you’ll need no disclosure or disclaimer or terms of service to understand them. We’re simply moving away from visitor tracking and pulling our work from proprietary platforms and keeping it in-house, as it were, on our own server, so that our visitor information and browsing patterns (on Better Bike and beyond) stay in our hands.

No More Tracking

First, in the wake of Google’s new policy we have discontinued use of Google Analytics, stripping our site of that visitor-tracking javascript (and all Facebook meta tags too). Better Bike has always been ad-free. We’ve never enrolled in any Adsense-type scheme or deployed any other ad tracker. (Today it is common to land on a site with fifteen of them.)

We’ve also discontinued our use of Google’s Feedburner RSS service because it tracked users (you can still subscribe through our site for RSS push notifications of new posts). We’ve also closed our Facebook page. (We didn’t see the value in it anyway, but your mileage may vary.) We do value our readers, though, so we’ve made it simple subscribe to our new weekly email news digest.

No More Third-Party Emails

Second, we’ve moved all of our emailing to our own server. Rather than work through third-party contact platforms like MailChimp or Constant Contact, now we send plain-text emails. We never liked HTML-format emails because they’re a vector for malware and they take too much time to compose…time better spent on creating a post. As an added bonus, now your email address is not in a company DB waiting to be sold or parted out at bankruptcy or otherwise compromised.

But the real benefit of sending email directly is that it avoids Mailchimp’s click-though tracking links. Routing click-through via a service was a already a concern. The Mailchimp privacy policy runs to 2,600 words, and we believe that you shouldn’t have to tacitly consent to turn over your information to them for Mailchimp purposes merely we’ve sent you an email.

But that was before we learned that Mailchimp inserts tracking links even in plain text emails, which in theory should include only visible simple links. Indeed the preview window in Mailchimp doesn’t show tracking links to the sender, though recipients receive plain text emails with them included. Not only do such links obscure the destination page link, they add clutter. So first we let HTML-format emails go, now we’re letting the service go too. From now on our emails are sent direct with no tracking links. They’re more reliable to open and are easier to share, we think.

New Weekly Email Digest Format

We will be sending out a weekly digest of recent Better Bike posts to keep you informed. Weekly email updates, we’ve noticed, is a practice of many of the advocacy groups that we follow, so why not run with that good idea?

Readers who had previously indicated an interest in receiving emails have been folded in to the new weekly notifications. For new visitors, sign-up is now easier and requires only an email – no names necessary. If it’s too much, simply unsubscribe and follow us via RSS in your favorite feed reader.

We hope that our weekly digest, along with the subscription options and recent usability improvements that we’ve made to the front end of the site, will make browsing Better Bike low-friction and more rewarding. We’re always open to your ideas about the site and especially any news you can share about your experiences riding in Beverly Hills.