MIT has launched a new website and Google Chrome extension which has the aim of turning the controversial practice of user-tracking on its head by letting users allow their activity on websites to be tracked, on a per-site basis, in order to share the information on their browsing activity with friends. In effect, the project amounts to a scheme to rate, rank and review the whole of the internet.

The project, dubbed Eyebrowse, has been in development for 18 months under the guidance of Amy Zhang, a graduate MIT student in electrical engineering and lead author on the project’s paper, which was presented last week at the Association For Computing Machinery’s conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.

eyebrowse-1Participation involves the installation of a Chrome extension and registering for an associated user account at MIT’s Eyebrowse website. Thereafter a drop-down appears, once for each domain, wherein you can choose to share your browsing habits for activity on that domain, or exclude the domain from Eyebrowse. By default user activity is not tracked.

As the terms of the scheme make clear, any information that you do share is publicly available. As the consent agreement states ‘This includes the browser visits to webpages on websites you have shared, comments you post, and chats you post.’

Information shared includes frequency of visits to websites allowed into the Eyebrowse stream, domains added, domains excluded, and the most frequently visited sites allowed into the user’s participation in the scheme.

eyebrowse-firehoseThe Eyebrowse website has a Firehose page where users can see new sites being added and rated. Since Eyebrowse has only just launched, current links are dominated by science websites and journalism-related sites (see image left). The feed is very close in style to Facebook, and the user can switch between the entire aggregate volunteered data, or just the site data for people that the user is following.

The researchers behind Eyebrowse, the source code of which is available at GitHub, see it as an opportunity not only for web-users to appropriate the controversial subject of tracking and take control of it, but also potentially to generate data so useful (for the commercial entities who currently use cookies and other methods to track you whether you like it or not) that it opens up the possibility of making forced data-grabbing redundant.

David Karger is a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, who initiated development of the system six years ago. He says:

“Google has this interesting 50,000-foot view of the Internet, because they know all the clicks. Most people don’t. There are lots of interesting questions about social dynamics. What are Democrats reading? You can’t answer that question right now. There are things that the population as a whole would be interested in knowing, and also things that scholars would be interested in knowing… The trackers don’t give us a choice about what gets tracked… And I’d really like to demonstrate that giving people a choice has positive benefits. And maybe someday that will turn into legislation that says that people have the right to decide whether they get tracked or not, in certain circumstances.”

Eyebrowse is an ambitious and fascinating project which will apparently need a massive and infectious buzz of user-enthusiasm and viral take-up, despite the ease of joining up, in order to achieve one of its primary aims. Mor Naaman, associate professor of information science at Cornell University says of the initiative: “Data has traditionally been used by anyone from corporations to the government,” and continues “But the goal of this system is to make the data more useful for the individuals themselves, to give them more control, and to make it more useful to communities… In previous research, we found that it’s difficult for users to cognitively manage all these different privacy settings, remembering what they mean and when and how to apply them…I think that will be something to address going forward. But there is potential, and I hope to eventually see it in a commercial product.”

Eyebrowse has the potential not only to supplant the tracking data which supplies advertisers with clues about the demographics of individual web-users, but also the weblogs which are crunched daily in their billions to provide ranking data for algorithms used by Google to place ‘importance’ to sites in search results, and to allow third-party entities such as Alexa to determine which sites are significant and successful on the web.

eyebrowse-bulletins-chatsThe interesting facet of the plug-in for the end user is the ability to pull down a small screen which enables a bulletin board for the website in question (see image right), to use a chat-room about the domain and to see the most recent list of visitors. Information of this nature is usually separated from the domain by at least one remove, i.e. the need to visit a Facebook page or Twitter feed about the site, or to find forums on entirely different domains which treat of the domain in question. However the possibility of discussion and activity exceeding the capabilities of such a small space inevitably mean that in the case of popular websites, meaningful discussion would likely end up handled by larger and more navigable forums either at the Eyebrowse site or at an ancillary site.