The feature has led some to speculate Reddit may be following the likes of Facebook and Twitter in tracking users
News and social networking site Reddit has quietly begun testing a feature that tracks users’ activity on the service, attracting the ire of some users and leading to fears that it may take the experiment further and track users’ general web browsing habits, as some other prominent social networks have done.
The feature makes Reddit the latest social network to experiment with tracking user’s online activities, a controversial practice that’s made use of by Facebook and Twitter, amongst others, to create detailed profiles for tailoring site content as well as advertising.
Reddit responded, however, that it is currently only tracking on-site browsing and that the tests only involve a small proportion of users.
The site described the tests in a changelog originally posted last month, but the tracking feature has gained more prominence over the past few days as users involved in the tests have noticed its effects.
Some remarked that the feature may actually harm the user experience, since it results in the front page of the site displaying content they’ve often already viewed, rather than a more general mix of topics.
“My front page is almost entirely filled with posts that I have no interest in, and is blocking me from seeing the more general content that I’m looking for,” one user wrote in the changelog’s comments.
“I’d really rather not have to always go deleting cookies or opening up private windows to be able to see the normal front page of Reddit,” another wrote.
User tracking controversy
The wider question summoned up by the tests, however, is whether Reddit will eventually implement off-site user-tracking of the kind used by Facebook, Twitter and more generally by web advertisers.
Facebook was ordered by the Belgian privacy regulator last year to scale back its data collection, with the regulator particularly taking offence at the collection of data on people who visit a Facebook page but don’t have an account.
However, the company has continued to develop its tracking systems, and late last month said it would add non-users to a programme called Audience Network that shows tailored ads to anyone who visits a site or application signed up to the scheme. Audience Network will now track those who don’t have a Facebook account and don’t use the site, the company said.
By contrast, Reddit said it is currently only using the feature to customise its front page and only looks at user activity on the site and on its iPhone and Android applications.
“When a logged-out user on Reddit browses into different communities and engages with a specific subreddit (e.g. viewing a comments page on a link), that subreddit is added to their first-party cookies,” said Reddit data scientist Justin Bassett in a statement provided to the press. “Reddit’s first-party cookies are not made available to any non-Reddit domains.”
He noted that the user-tracking cookie has been on Reddit for several years, currently being used with a feature that suggests posts and sponsored headlines, and added that the current test only affects 1 percent of logged-out users on the desktop site.
Reddit previously tested a feature that tracked outbound links clicked by users, but shut down the tests earlier this year following users’ privacy complaints.
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