Ever since the invention of Lynx in the early 1990s to give at least a few folks access to the internet, we have been growing ever more comfortable with accessing information, buying products, and sharing ourselves with our Facebook Friends. We are aware to some degree that the websites we visit place ‘cookies’ on our computers so that the computer and any given website can remember each other and save relevant ‘personal’ information pertinent to the site. But concerns about how intrusive those cookies are have long been voiced since their invention (invented at the same time and by the same man, Lou Montulli, who wrote Lynx and developed Netscape. Moreover, Mr. Montulli expressed fears about the abuse of his cookies.). Recent developments of ‘Third-Party Cookies’ mean that advertisers can track you across sites with their cookies, which can customize your experience throughout the web. They can track your behaviors and steer you toward certain products no matter what you were searching for. Orwellian? The Wall Street Journal believes it could be.
Nick Wingfield of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has published a report about third-party cookies have evolved in recent years, and – more unnervingly – how Microsoft chose to open up its Internet Explorer 8 to allow all such cookies to track one’s browsing. The decision puts Microsoft at odds with the rest of the browser-development industry, who have attempted to limit the influences of such cookies, ‘beacons,’ and ‘flash cookies’ (which use Flash technology to re-establish themselves after a user ‘deletes’ them).
The decision taken by Microsoft’s IE development was to allow the user to establish strict controls over the acceptance of tracking bits of software – but once the browser is closed and reopened, the strict controls are forgotten and the browser accepts all comers again until the user intervenes in each browsing session to re-establish the desired restraints.
Why would Microsoft design their latest browser to forget the user’s security settings? Because Microsoft developed an online advertising business in the months leading up to the development and deployment of IE8, and ad-sellers at the corporation did not want programmers to lock out the advertising they were selling. Though it might all seem like an obvious case of a conflict-of-interests, Microsoft are hardly alone in trying to get a share of web advertising dollars to develop the browsers that will track the web advertising:
Microsoft bought, a Web-ad firm, in 2007 for more than $6 billion, to build a business selling ads online. Google, already a giant in online marketing, in September 2008 launched a Web browser, Chrome, that gives it new insight into Internet users’ habits. Apple has launched an ad network, iAds, for its iPhone and iPad. And Adobe last year paid $1.8 billion to buy Omniture, which measures the effectiveness of online ads.
Executives in Microsoft’s new ad business were upset when the designers of Internet Explorer hatched the plan to block tracking activity, say people involved in the debate. At a meeting in the spring of 2008, Brian McAndrews, a Microsoft senior vice president who had been chief executive of aQuantive before Microsoft acquired it, complained to the browser planners. Their privacy plan, he argued, would disrupt the selling of Web ads by Microsoft and other companies.
The article is a must-read for anyone wanting to know the history of web browsing and advertising, and/or wanting to take control of his or her online tracks. But the article is a wonderful example of “old-media” insight, thoroughness, and balance mixed with “new-media” interactivity. Be sure to watch the embedded videos and thethat does a fabulous job explaining the job (and the ubiquity) of a third-party cookie. Nick Wingfield’s report is a joy to read. But is the topic too scary to be joyful? Do you see a conflict of interests? A synergy of technology and commerce? Let us know. We promise not to trace where you go after you leave a comment below.
MKCREATIVE is indebted to Scott Caldarelli (Scott Caldarelli Consulting Limited/Twitter: @scc_ltd) for calling our attention to the article.