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:
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:
- Talk to whoever you have to in your organization to inform them that this problem occurred.
- 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.
- 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.