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The fact that major media companies track the online habits of subscribers is nothing new, but lately the possibility has arisen that journalists and editors can use this information to write about the media consumption of public figures.

Companies like Fairfax and News Corporation track and record subscribers’ viewing histories in an effort to target advertising more effectively, make sure subscriptions aren’t shared widely and compile information about subscribers.

Crikey understands that on at least one occasion recently News Corporation journalists have found they have been able to access the browsing histories of subscribers, including public figures with an online subscription to products like The Australian, the online edition of News Corp’s metropolitan tabloids and News+. Whether the access reflected company policy or was an error isn’t clear.

A News Corp spokesman declined to comment on the specific issue, including whether journalists and editors have access to information about subscribers, only saying “we take data privacy very seriously, and it would not be in our interests to do anything with it that isn’t in the best interests of our subscribers”.

Both News Corp and Fairfax, desperate to move readers into a subscription-based business model, are open about their collection of such information, if you make the effort to read their privacy policies. Fairfax’s privacy policy states:

“We also collect information about you that is not personal information. For example, we may collect data relating to your activity on our websites (including IP addresses) via tracking technologies such as cookies, or we may collect information from you in response to a survey. We generally use this information to report statistics, analyse trends, administer our services, diagnose problems and target and improve the quality of our products and services. To the extent this information does not constitute personal information, the National Privacy Principles do not apply and we may use this information for any purpose and by any means whatsoever.”

News Corporation’s privacy policy is similar:

“When you are online, we collect information regarding the pages within our network which you visit and what you click on. As a general rule we do not collect sensitive information. However, if we do, it will usually be for the purposes of providing our goods or services and if the law requires us to, we will seek your consent to collect it.”

The policy goes on to advise:

“We may collect and use certain non-personal information (e.g., the identity of your Internet browser, the type of operating system you use, your IP address and the domain name of your Internet service provider) to optimise our goods and services (which on digital platforms may include the display of personalised content and advertising) including our Web pages for your computer. We may use such non-personal information for internal purposes, including but not limited to improving the content of our sites.

“News may use personally identifiable information in aggregate form to improve our goods and services including our Web sites and make them more responsive to the needs of our customers.”

“The potential for individual journalists to access subscriber information for politicians, business figures or anyone else is greatly concerning to EFA …”

Crikey currently tracks subscriber browsing history for the purposes of targeted advertising. Editorial staff don’t have access to this information.

While subscriber selection of news items is unlikely, in most instances, to be the sort of personal information individuals are concerned about protecting, the sheer breadth of sites and services available on both Fairfax and News websites means browsing histories can provide highly revealing information. Fairfax’s sites have direct links, for example, to dating site RSVP.com.au, lifestyle sites and financial comparison sites. Some sections of News Corporation’s tabloid newspaper sites have extensive semi-n-de “galleries” devoted to celebrities and glamour models. Both sites have Google ads for a variety of services depending on the content of articles — an article on s-x produces Google ads for investigating cheating spouses, for example.

In short, a subscriber’s browsing history has great potential to prove embarrassing if publicly revealed.

As Fairfax’s privacy policy makes clear, this isn’t personal information in the way that address and financial details are personal; it is information you freely provide to the company when you click on a link. Individually, such pieces of information are nearly useless; only in aggregation do they become valuable to the company, to advertisers and to marketers.

“An individual’s choices relating to what media articles are of interest to them is highly personal information,” Electronic Frontiers Australia told Crikey in a statement. But the EFA acknowledges “it is standard business practice for media and other sites to use automated services to tailor content and advertising based on those choices”.

Questions to Fairfax about usage of data and whether journalists and editors have access to it elicited only that “Fairfax Media complies with relevant privacy laws in all of its dealings with readers and customers”.

US financial news giant Bloomberg was at the centre of controversy in May when the New York Post (a News Corp publication) revealed that Bloomberg journalists had been using information on usage of Bloomberg financial information terminals to track people they were reporting on. Bloomberg promptly announced it had cut off access to such data by journalists.

The potential for individual journalists to access subscriber information for politicians, business figures or anyone else is greatly concerning to EFA, which called it “a serious breach of the spirit, if not the letter of National Privacy Principles 3-4”:

“These principles state that: ‘An organisation must take steps to ensure the personal information it holds is accurate and up-to-date, and is kept secure from unauthorised use or access.’ EFA understands that such access would be illegal under EU Data Protection Laws and calls on all media outlets to ensure that their systems are sufficiently secure to ensure that journalists are not able to access such information.”

EFA wants the current privacy review by the Australian Law Reform Commission to strengthen laws about the use of such information.

Interestingly, News Corp’s privacy policy also states “we may disclose your personal information in order to comply with Australian or foreign law”. That is, subscribers’ personal and browsing information might be handed to law enforcement or security agencies where required by law. As we’ve seen in the United States, that kind of requirement is potentially universal, no matter how innocuous your browsing on a newspaper website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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