In the last year the Federal Trade Commission has been considering a DO NOT TRACK list – web users can click and sign up for greater anonymity, to hide from online marketers. The technology that brought this about? Cookies.
"'Cookies' are by far the most controversial and misunderstood thing that I've ever invented," says Lou Montulli, who was a founding engineer at Netscape in the early 1990s. Montulli's big idea was just a few kilobytes of HTML code that allowed websites to remember your password and keep tabs on you as you clicked from page to page. But in recent years those innocent clicks began to be tracked by so—called "third-party cookies." Now large corporations use that information for targeted advertising.
That's a problem according to Helen Nissenbaum, a privacy expert at New York University. "I mean what is it about a totalitarian government that is problematic?" she asks. "They know everything about you and they're there in every part of your life, and that's my fear." She helped design a program called TrackMeNot which bombards search engines with fake queries. The idea is to fog up the mirror, so to speak. "So it's not about sharing information," Nissenbaum says, "it's who are you going to share it with, can you trust them?"
But Jeff Jarvis, a popular tech blogger, thinks that kind of defeats the purpose. "If we didn't have targeting technology and the internet," Jarvis says, "you would have a bunch of dancing monkey ads, those horrible ads, the cheapest most awful ads. And you'd also have a helluva lot less content. So cookies are good, cookies are your friend."
What about the man who wreaked all this havoc in the first place? Lou Montulli says without cookies, there are far sneakier tracking devices out there that could pry into our digital secrets. "If cookies aren't here and we don't have the protections of cookies, there's going be something way worse down the pike. And I'm a little scared to find out what that would be."
(Originally aired: December 17, 2010)
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