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WordPress Theme Developer to Use Code to Start Tracking All Sites Running Its Themes. Yikes!

Woothemes tracking

Almost two years ago, I wrote about the positive experience that I’d had with WooThemes when switching over to the current WordPress theme that powers 40Tech. I implemented several custom changes to the theme we use here, and the WooThemes folks were very helpful as I worked things out. Lately, though, the WooThemes team has taken a step that has given me pause. Specifically, WooThemes is integrating tracking into all of their themes – new or old – so that they can get a better idea of how their customers are using their themes.

Here are a few points, from what I can glean from the WooThemes blog post that announced the news, and the subsequent discussion in the comments:

  • the tracking is turned on by default, but can be disabled by the user;
  • the tracking is currently live in themes released after November 22, 2011, with plans to add it to all themes (so if you update your theme, the tracking code will be present);
  • from what I can tell, customers have yet to be told that their usage is being tracked, so they will only learn of it by finding it in the settings, or by stumbling upon news of it on the WooThemes blog;
  • a comment to the blog post mentions that customers will be notified when it is rolled out to all themes in the future. There is no word on what form that notification will take;
  • the tracking monitors . . . I’m still not sure.

That last point is a big part of the problem. I’ve probably read more on this issue than the average WooThemes consumer (who probably doesn’t even know it is occurring), and I’m still not clear on what is going on here. The two WooThemes blog post (plus one other post) contains a screenshot that shows a sample dashboard entry. The screenshot suggests that aggregate information is collected, such as the number of sites running a theme, the average number of posts on those sites, the average number of comments, and so on. The WooThemes developers have also answered concerns with comments that “no personal or confidential information is shared.” I’m not sure what this means, since we’re talking about website information, and not personal data. Is this akin to Google Analytics, or something more?

If this just akin to the information collected by Google Analytics, does that make it acceptable? Some users might argue that when you visit a website, Google Analytics is collecting and aggregating information that you’re already transmitting to that site. When you activate a theme that you’ve purchased or licensed, however, you normally don’t transmit anything. In other words, Google Analytics is capturing data that is already available. WooThemes is forcing your site to send out information that it wouldn’t otherwise send, unless you’re aware of the tracking and affirmatively disable it.

This issue seems to have become a microcosm of many privacy debates that occur online. At one end of the spectrum are those who are highly sensitive about disclosing any information, and see WooThemes’ tracking as offensive. At the other end of the spectrum are those with the usual cries of “the collected data is harmless and this is no big deal,” and “I have nothing to hide, so I don’t mind.”

My position on this is a combination of these two positions. On one hand, I’ve mellowed somewhat after some initial bother, and I’m not overly concerned about any data WooThemes might collect on 40Tech. On the other hand, I think those who aren’t concerned need to be respectful of the concerns of others. Just because you aren’t concerned doesn’t mean that others don’t have a right to control what data they release to third parties, no matter how trivial you might consider that information to be.

My biggest concerns are that I’m not sure what is being sent, and that this tracking is turned on by default. This will come as a surprise to many users.

That’s where the Woo team members fell flat on their face. Their customers shouldn’t have to dig to find out exactly what information is being transmitted. This also should be turned off by default. WooThemes’ response to many of these concerns is troubling – the comments have been along the lines of “but this information will really help us! Oh, and you can turn it off (if you are even aware the it is happening).” They’ve also compared this collection of information to how Facebook or Foursquare collects information. There is a HUGE difference there, and it concerns me that the WooThemes folks don’t get it. Facebook and Foursquare are hosted web services. WooThemes sells themes (or license to themes) that we take and go install elsewhere. Now we’re buying themes with “phone home” code built in, that many of us won’t discover.

What’s your take on this? Is it much adieu about nothing, or a cause for concern?