That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles…

For a lot of people, announcing the death of cookies would mean adios to those annoying messages supposedly explaining their use that we accept without understanding, without even reading them: just another nuisance involved in using the web.

But cookies are more than these absurd — and often illegal — warnings placed there as a result of the ineffectiveness of some legislators who are unable to understand that the effect of badly made laws is not to fix the problem they were supposed to fix, but in some cases make them worse. In reality, cookies are a simple, low-cost solution created by Netscape to enable information to be saved between different browsing sessions. Cookies were a small identifier stored in our computers so the browser knew if we had visited that site before and could then link us to things we’d on that page, especially (at that time) we’d stored something in a shopping cart. Cookies do not store our personal information, which is stored in the site’s files.

Cookies soon became ubiquitous to the point that the web can’t be conceived without them. On the one hand, because sites that don’t use them have no idea what’s going on. On the other hand, because they were essential for analytics. And finally, because they made it possible to know which sites we’ve visited or which advertisements we’ve seen. Advertising led to abuses, privacy concerns, paranoia and, in the end, legislation to stop abuses. The advertising industry tried to normalize the elimination of navigation anonymity, meaning that after looking for a hotel in Rome, every time we browsed we would see advertisements for hotels in Rome wherever we go. As always in the history of advertising, there are no shortage of idiots willing to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

As a result, some of began to change our behavior. We would delete cookies periodically, despite the inconveniences of removing those that stored passwords, shopping carts or preferences. Others installed specific add-ons to block those cookies, or all advertising, in what Doc Searls has called the largest collective boycott in human history. But most of us did nothing, resigned ourselves to the inconvenience, and simply waited for our browsers to solve the problem. Apple’s Safari was first: in 2017 it decided to provide a much greater level of control over cookies, earning accusations by the advertising industry of sabotage. What did Apple say? Simply that ad tracking technology had become so ubiquitous that ad tracking companies could now collect and recreate most of a person’s browsing history without their permission and use it for ad targeting and re-targeting, and it was about time to do something about it.

Apple wasn’t lying. Previously, Brave had gone one step further and raised the industry’s ire by launching a browser that not only blocked advertising, but allowed us to replace it with other ads, charging them based on their exposure. But because it was a relatively minor player, there was no bloodshed.

But next came Firefox. And finally, Google’s Chrome, the most-popular browser, owned by a company that lives off advertising, but for which cookies are less and less necessary, given that most of its users navigate are already logged in to one of its services. Now, all major browsers offer more tech-savvie users the possibility to delete tracking cookies between pages and social trackers, or to delete all cookies every time we close a session. For the world of advertising, the apocalypse.

So far, that apocalypse has sent the share price of companies like Criteo, which pursues users through programmatic advertising, to a historic low. Programmatic advertising means that our profile is auctioned in real time every time we enter a page: based on what it knows about that user, companies bid for the advertising space on that page. A cattle market.

The predictable fall in programmatic and behavioral advertising is welcome, because as studies show, this kind of aggressive advertising, while beloved by marketing directors and the media, doesn’t work, and has always been about selling more expensive ads with minimal marginal conversion. But not any longer.

Having lost Chrome, the advertising industry is scrambling to find new ways to keep harassing us. Their industry organization, the same IAB that has never done anything to curb these abuses, is now trying to propose a new standard equivalent to a standardized identifier, which would be equivalent to us surfing the web with our hands up and our ID cards in our mouths, and that is totally unacceptable just because it’s coming from IAB. Other solutions, proposed by large companies with many websites, consist of obtaining our identification data by asking us for something as simple as being identified by means of a login, the equivalent of what Google, which also has ideas on the subject, achieved some time ago through services such as Gmail. We’ll have to see what the smaller companies do: they’ll either fall into the arms of Google and others, come up with some better ideas, or try to use intrusive systems such as device fingerprinting, collecting data from our devices, browsers and connections to try to obtain unique combinations that would allow them to identify us.

It’s important to understand what’s been going on all these years, why we were inundated with advertisements, and to push for transparency. Cookies will still do their job on the devices of people who can’t be bothered to learn how to deal with them, while some companies will still sell junk to the decreasing number of users who do not know or understand how to stop it. Others, it is assumed, will learn, will adopt a more respectful approach, resulting in a healthier and more reasonable relationship with us. Hopefully.

The history of cookies, like so many other things on the web, is an example of what happens when technology, in the absence of regulation, facilitates misuse. Hopefully, this sad chapter will soon be over; for advertisers, it seems that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

(En español, aquí)

Previously published on medium

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Photo credit: istockphoto