The turbulent compromises of internet privacy and the reluctant trajectory of cookie warfare
By Jana Paegle
It comes to nobody’s surprise that data has been deemed the most valuable resource in our extractivist economic system. Our mammal tendencies of oversharing and committing to the Internet’s colorful and dark corners alike have accelerated transfusions of personal information, and preferences as we have sacrificed our soft spots to big tech’s profit mechanisms. As we swarm the web, we are inundated with pop-ups asking us whether we accept all cookies alongside seven other boxes to tick. Most of us have become conditioned into rapidly consenting. But what do these cookies… actually imply? And what is the difference between regular cookies and the so-called third-party cookies? Do they even matter?
Lou Montulli has been attributed to being the cookies’ founder. An innocent engineer, aged 23, at the company Netscape in 1994, he developed one of the World Wide Web’s first extensive browsers. The cookie came about as a remedy to the amnesia of websites. Take the analogy of Hansel and Gretel, leaving breadcrumbs to find their way back in the forest— likewise, ‘first-party’ cookies serve as a tool for websites to remember your visit, making you less of a stranger with each browsing session. Rather than developing permanent digital IDs, the cookie was born as a promising compromise: “a small text file passed back and forth between a person’s computer and a single website—as a way to help websites remember visitors without allowing people to be tracked”. More recently, cookies have extended to third parties— ad companies, which track your clicks, scrolls, preferences and visits. This constantly feeds the behavioral economic surplus, and subsequently, companies tailor ads that follow you around the web. How so? Any website that has third-party elements such as a Google/Facebook share button or similar link provides gateway access for these parties to gather information about you.
Montulli’s cookie was meant to improve user experience. Still, in a Quartz interview earlier this year, he regrets that website revenue increasingly depends on advertising — leading to perverse side effects societally, where quality has been compromised in the name of “interaction”. On a broader scale, irrational user behavior has spread like pathogenic spores that undermine democracy, deepen polar rifts and normalize disinformation.
Instead, Montulli wishes to see decreased advertising-browsing ties as a way for users to regain autonomy and independence. This has partially been realized by specific content creators and zines through micropayments or subscription installments.
Certain companies have also taken measures to increase consent and transparency, such as Apple. In April this year, they updated their software to ask iPhone users for app tracking permission — this was seen as a big step for transparency. Still, other big-tech giants, like increasingly ominous Facebook, flinched and immediately clashed with Apple. Why? Because such an initiative jeopardizes the core revenue of the Zuckerbergian ‘metaverse’, namely the data coming in from users.
In a New York Times explanatory piece on privacy, Harvard professor and internet-expert extraordinaire, Shoshana Zuboff, underlines, with a finger of warning, that we shouldn’t mistake benevolent adjustments for goodwill as it’s important for people to understand that:
“Apple is not a government. Apple is a company. It’s a corporation. And in a corporation, C.E.O.s come and go, boards change their membership. Business cycles and business crises occur. And today, Apple can look privacy preserving. And a year from now, we could be having a conversation about how Apple has reneged on all of these privacy values because there’s an economic crisis, and with a new C.E.O. and a different board, Apple completely changes”
Further, respect for privacy, data integrity, and human rights have gotten lost in translation as Apple has seceded its encryption to please Chinese state regulators in a horse trade for profitable manufacturing margins (for now); allowing censorship and disqualified principles of human rights at the expense of Chinese Apple users.
Another rival, Google, was recently fined 100 million euros by the French data inspection (CNIL), for failing to ask for website visitors’ consent before planting tracking cookies on their computers. Eerke Boiten, cybersecurity professor and a writer for The Conversation, blames Google’s business model for its delay in scraping third-party cookies on its browser and products as others have gotten rid of them. “It relies on third-party cookies for some of its lucrative ad business and is a major player in the digital advertising ecosystem that will be upended by the change”. Google Chrome holds a clear majority of web browser competition today, having 67 percent of the market share in September 2021.
Social media companies act like giant data trawlers in a sense, cleansing our seabeds and becoming master predictors of users’ emotions, preferences and vulnerabilities. Our seemingly democratic spaces are surveilled through precarious, momentary contracts and cookie-like tools— stuffing often disclosed, compromised agendas.
If you happen to be a Chrome user, you can disable third-party cookies in your browser settings and/or also use an ad blocker plugin. User control over the advertising works as of now, but only by virtue of these particular settings and complementary tools. On the lighter side of things, the virtually unregulated, Eldorado-state of affairs for big-tech will most likely come to an end… But in the meantime, I prefer to bake my own cookies and to leave no crumbs.