Cookies, tracking, and the ethics of ad-blocking

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 16 April 2012

The Guardian has been running a project “Tracking the trackers” - looking at the use of cookies by websites ahead of the end of the 12 months grace period the ICO gave us all before implementing changes in European legislation. Naturally discussion in the comments on some articles has turned to the Guardian’s own use of cookies.

I’ve joined in the comment thread myself.

I must say that I find myself conflicted by this. I fully believe that users should be completely in control of their data, and should be completely in control of their browsing experience and how they set up their computers. But years of user-testing and user-centred design have taught me that for many users these are incidental issues - they are trying to achieve the task in hand with default settings.

One of my biggest concerns with the new emphasis on gaining consent for placing cookies on a user’s computer is that it means mainstream sites and businesses will spend the time and effort to make systems that will interrupt the browsing experience, whereas those that are planning nefarious activities won’t bother. Ironically the legislation will make the user experience of sites that mean you and your data harm smoother and easier than the user experience of sites that are being responsible about cookies.

And there is also the small matter of understanding the extent to which an EU decision disadvantages companies based in Europe in a global market-place. it will be interesting to see which of the big internet properties like Amazon, Google, Facebook et al implement changes in the next few weeks about the way they handle placing cookies on European users.

But I also joined in the comment thread for a personal reason.

This kind of topic often attracts into debate the very tech-savvy and those with strong opinions about privacy and computer-security. A lot of commenters criticised the Guardian for the amount of advertising cookies that are dropped when visiting our desktop site. I wrote this:

“I must say that on a personal level it always dismays me the number of people who are happy to come onto the Guardian site, where we rely on commercial components to pay for the journalism, and then use our free commenting platform to recommend that people use AdBlock, or disable the analytics scripts that are the only way we can measure usage of the site to prove the worth of it to advertisers. It basically says ‘I’ll have your news for free thanks, and I don’t even want you to be able to generate the money it has cost you in bandwidth and storage to serve the page - let alone pay for the reporting.’”

It wasn’t a universally popular sentiment on the thread - one user described it as patronising - but I’m happy to stick by it. I’ve never run ad-blocking software or extensions in my browser, and I never will. If I’m using a website that is free to access, then I’m happy to do it on the terms of the person serving up that information to me. If they want to fund it by advertising, that’s just fine by me.

1 Comment

We are working on improving the browsing experience while still being able to express consent. Not easy, but everybody is enthusiastic so far. See w3.org/2011/tracking-protection/

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