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These are the days of NSA spying headlines, complaints about companies using and misusing private data to conduct psychological experiments, sell us things, and change the way we engage with politics.

I received a tip from a whistle blower that Rosetta Stone’s Library Edition was setting ad tracking cookies (without disclosure or consent) on the personal computers of any library users who used the Library Edition that is offered through their libraries. This applied not only to the full product, but also to any library offering a temporary trial of the product.

The source stated that the tracking cookies are linked to Google’s DoubleClick advertising network, and were being used to display Rosetta Stone ads on any website within Google’s syndication network that the patron subsequently visits.  The ads in question promoted the complete Rosetta Stone set (Levels 1-5). Why does that make sense? Because the Library Edition only contains Level 1 for any of the offered languages. And advertising additional levels = $$$ for Rosetta Stone.

I was at first skeptical, as I am of all claims about library companies doing nefarious things. I get more of these tips than you’d think, and most of them turn out to be bogus once I test them and talk with the company.

But, in this case, my corporate bullshit detector was already buzzing about Rosetta Stone after they all but gave the finger to libraries who had been licensing their language learning products.  Only a few libraries remain Rosetta Stone customers, but those who are, take note of the following:

Your patrons were getting tagged through the product you offered to them and then spammed with ads to promote the complete Rosetta Stone set.

Are you okay with that? Does this violate your library’s privacy or confidentiality policy? Does it violate information you provide library users about what information is being kept about them when they use library services? My guess is yes.

“Now Sarah,” you might ask, “Why are you saying ‘were’?”

Because now that they got caught, Rosetta Stone says they’ve stopped. I think.

In response to my press inquiry, I received a perfectly pleasant email from Christophe Pralong, Rosetta Stone Director for Higher Education and Learning.

The TL;DR version of his response is “Well yes, now that you mention it, library users might have picked these wicked little marketing monsters up, but we’ve now removed them from all library-specific pages. So now it’s all cool, right bro?”

Below is a screenshot of the email response I received:

rosetta

 

Right. So.

First, “re-marketing pixels” work the same as cookies, so as much as Rosetta Stone wants to sanitize the language describing what they do to users, they are marking people in a supposedly safe digital library environment. Not cool.

Second, did it not occur to anyone at Rosetta Stone that library users will be using sign-on pages, and as a result, those “re-marketing pixels” will be tagging them just as they tag all the other users? And that, as might be expected, librarians might be a tad bit pissed off about this?

Third, “all library-specific pages” only? Does that mean that a general log-in page still has the tracking “re-marketing pixels”?

My library does not subscribe to Rosetta Stone. We could not afford it, and frankly it’s a poor value for what you have to pay.  I’m really rather glad, right now, that we are not customers.

If your library does subscribe, however, here’s my three-fold suggestion:

  1. Talk to whoever you have to in your organization to inform them that this problem occurred.
  2. Send a letter of concern/complaint from your organization to Rosetta Stone, stating your feelings about you library users being tagged and marketed to by the very company you’re already paying.
  3. Inform your patrons of what happened and apologize, because ultimately we as librarians are responsible for the actions, good and bad, of the companies whose products we thrust into our patrons’ hands.

“Tracking Your Library Users, New from Rosetta Stone!”

  1. Lisa Says:

    Rosetta Stone can go fuck themselves.

    I have a draft languishing about my battle with them a few months back on pricing. It goes something like this:

    (Please note we are a community college geared more towards foundation work and we have an FTE of 10K.)

    RS: We can offer you Academic Premier for the low, low cost of $25k/yr.
    Me: HAHAHAHAHAHAAHA. Fuck off. (In politeese)
    RS: :( :( :( But we want youuuuu.
    Me: We can talk if you can bring it down to $4-7K a year, $5-6K is something we’re comfortable with.
    (a week goes by)
    RS: We can offer you a three year deal at $16K for all three years, which averages out to about $5,5K a year.
    Me: WOW. That’s great! Then after the three years?
    RS: It goes back up to it’s normal price of $25K/year. THIS IS A ONE TIME OFFER BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU.
    Me: You want to give me a price break and then jack the price up at 500% after?
    RS: We cannot guarantee anything in writing after that time.This is our standard pricing.
    Me: … You do realise we are a community college with 10K FTE right?
    RS: All things are negotiable.

  2. Tracking Your Library Users, New from Rosetta S... Says:

    […] These are the days of NSA spying headlines, complaints about companies using and misusing private data to conduct psychological experiments, sell us things, and  […]

  3. Eric Hellman Says:

    This is why libraries should consider blocking doubleclick.net cookies completely. It’s a one-line config in a gateway. In comparison, it might be very hard to turn off third party cookies in a log in page because multiple resolution systems often depend on them

  4. Vicki Says:

    I’ve never met anyone who became fluent in a foreign language using Rosetta Stone.

    I’m a newly minted MSLS, but my first master’s degree was an MA in Spanish, and I served as a Teaching Assistant throughout grad school, teaching Spanish 1 and Spanish 2, mainly to undergraduates.

    The library where I work now uses Mango Languages, and I don’t know anything about their use of cookies (or non-use as the case may be). I haven’t heard many complaints about Mango, but I haven’t really kept my ear to the ground to be honest.

    However, I feel that StraighterLine might offer a better option for serious students of Spanish, at least, since their Spanish 1 course really emphasizes speaking, and students have to submit oral presentations via Skype in the target language. Rote repetition, as in Rosetta Stone, is a little too passive for realistic language acquisition, if you ask me.

    Nonethless, I like Mango Languages, if only for the wide range of language courses they offer, on different topics, with the added plus of free streaming films in the original languages, which is nice.

  5. Jon Says:

    Hi Vicki,

    I’m a sysadmin here at Mango Languages and your comment was brought to my attention as I might be able to clarify how we use cookies within our program. Essentially we use cookies to track user sessions (think ‘remember me’ and ‘usage statistics’) and google analytics to track general (think PageClicks) usage of our apps, so we can see which languages and products are being used. As we take the privacy of our customers’ patrons very seriously, in no way do we use any of our technologies to feed ads or market additional products to their library patrons.

    We’re glad to have you as a customer and please let me know if you have any other questions in the future.

    Happy Learning!
    Jon

  6. G Minks Says:

    Yea, we got burned hard by Rosetta Stone once, not going to give them a second shot. It sounds like they are offering a BS deal now anyway. Seriously, they have a lot of nerve trying to drum up business with libraries after what they did. I’ll give them this, they have nerve.

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