On the Ubiquity of Web Tracking: Insights from a Billion-Page Web Crawl

Sebastian Schelter, Jérôme Kunegis

Abstract


We perform a large-scale analysis of third-party trackers on the World Wide Web. We extract third-party embeddings from more than 3.5~billion web pages of the CommonCrawl 2012 corpus, and aggregate those to a dataset containing more than 140 million third-party embeddings in over 41 million domains. To the best of our knowledge, this constitutes the largest empirical web tracking dataset collected so far, and exceeds related studies by more than an order of magnitude in the number of  domains and web pages analyzed. Due to the enormous size of the dataset, we are able to perform a large-scale study of online tracking, on three levels: (1) On a global level, we give a precise figure for the extent of tracking, give insights into the structural properties of the `online tracking sphere' and analyse which trackers (and subsequently, which companies) are used by how many websites.
(2) On a country-specific level, we analyse which trackers are used by websites in different countries, and identify the countries in which websites choose significantly different trackers than in the rest of the world.
(3) We answer the question whether the content of websites influences the choice of trackers they use, leveraging more than ninety thousand categorized domains. In particular, we analyse whether highly privacy-critical websites about health and addiction make different choices of trackers than other websites.

Based on the performed analyses, we confirm that trackers are widespread (as expected), and that a small number of trackers dominates the web (Google, Facebook and Twitter).  In particular, the three tracking domains with the highest PageRank are all owned by Google.  The only exception to this pattern are a few countries such as China and Russia. Our results suggest that this dominance is strongly associated with country-specific political factors such as freedom of the press. Furthermore, our data confirms that Google still operates services on Chinese websites, despite its proclaimed retreat from the Chinese market.
We also confirm that websites with highly privacy-critical content are less likely to contain trackers (60\% vs 90\% for other websites), even though the majority of them still do contain trackers.


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