Blogs and Privacy
Over at Civilities, Jon Garfunkel points out that many blogs that use Site Meter and other third-party visitor tracking services are publicly displaying a lot of information about their readers: IP addresses, domains, location information, referring URLs, and if they came to the site via a search engine, the search terms that took them to the blog. In his post, Jon notes that he tried an experiment at a blog that uses Site Meter and linked up IP addresses to specific anonymous or pseudonymous comments. That blog was ours.
Our Site Meter stats are public. I really like allowing our readers to see our traffic stats, referring URLs, the search term queries that bring readers to our blog, and the location and domain information.
But Site Meter also lists the IP address of each visitor, something that the public really doesn’t need to see. An IP address is a unique numerical identifier that is assigned to every computer connected to the Web. It doesn’t reveal your name, but it can be used to trace back to the specific computer you used or be linked to your account with an ISP. In other words, your IP address can be used to find out who you are.
A sample stat entry looks like this (I’ve blocked out part of the IP address):
Some other stats that SIte Meter offers are:
* A chart of our visits and page views over the past year
* A list of the past 4000 domains that have visited us
* A list of the past 4000 URLs that referred visitors to our blog
* A ranking of the last 4000 entry pages to our blog (shows which posts are particularly popular today)
* A list of locations where our last 4000 visitors came from
* A list of search terms that brought visitors to our blog
Our Site Meter tracks the last 4000 visits to our blog, which are publicly displayed at the Site Meter page for our blog. Entries beyond the last 4000 are no longer publicly displayed. For our blog, which is getting about 3000 to 3500 visits per day, information about your visit to our blog is displayed for a little over a day.
Jon’s post has made me think much harder about blogs and privacy. Beyond Site Meter, our blogging software logs the IP addresses of commenters. We could conceivably be subpoenaed in a civil or criminal litigation to turn over IP address information about an anonymous or pseudonymous commenter. When posting a comment, our blogging software also asks for your email address, which is not published with your comment but which is recorded in our system and made available to us. You can provide a fake email address, but if you provide your true email address, this could also be of use in identifying you if subpoenaed.
I contacted Site Meter to see if IP addresses could be partially blocked in public stats on a premium account. A person at Site Meter informed me that they currently cannot do this, but that they hope to add this capability in the near future. Right now, then, the best solution to this dilemma is to downgrade from the premium to the free Site Meter, as this will allow us to have public stats with partially-blocked IP addresses. We are currently considering do this at Concurring Opinions, as well as removing Extreme Stats, another service similar to Site Meter that we use which also displays IP addresses.
Many of the blogs I visit have public stats, so if you’re a regular blog reader, your IP address and other information is being logged and publicly displayed across the blogosphere.
I. YOUR ATTITUDES TOWARD PUBLIC STATS
1. Do you find our public visitor stats via Site Meter to be useful? If so, why?
2. Do you find it problematic for your IP addresses to be publicly displayed in Site Meter and other visitor tracking services?
II. YOUR KNOWLEDGE ABOUT WHAT INFORMATION WE HAVE ABOUT YOU
3. Did you realize that when you visit our blog and others, that your IP address and other information are publicly available in our Site Meter logs?
4. Did you realize that when you make an anonymous comment on our blog, it is possible to link up your IP address with your comment via Site Meter stats?
5. Did you realize that when you make an anonymous comment on our blog, our blogging software records your IP address, which could be subpoenaed?
III. YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT POLICY
6. Should we continue on as usual (public Site Meter stats with full IP addresses)? Or should we block full IP addresses from public view?
7. If there’s a tradeoff between having public stats with full IP addresses and no public stats at all, which of these options would you prefer?
8. What should our policy be if we are requested by others or subpoenaed to provide identifying information (an IP address or email address) for an anonymous or pseudonymous commenter?