The rise and fall of the cookie monster

Posted on by Guy Cookson

In around 1994 Lou Montulli had an idea. He was working on improving the Netscape web browser, which at the time was the most popular way to access the internet, when he decided it would be useful to track whether or not someone had previously visited a website.

Montulli realised that if websites could “remember” your preferences you would no longer have to enter your username and password every single time you landed on a website, or add items to your shopping cart all over again if you left a website briefly before checking out.

He referred to the little piece of data that would be stored on a user’s computer to make this all work as a cookie.

New uses were soon found for cookies. Website owners discovered they could more accurately record information about their visitors, such as the number of new versus repeat users.

Up until this point any niggles about privacy were mostly offset by the convenience cookies provided.

This started to change with the rise of third party cookies, which are used to track your device as you browse from one website to another and serve targeted advertisements.

“Third-party cookies are the main reason why the shoes you looked at two weeks ago are still stalking you around the web,” explains Matt Burgess of Wired. “All the data gathered by third-party cookies is used to build user profiles, which can include your interests, the things you buy and behaviours online – this can be fed back to murky data brokers.”

Attempts to limit third party cookies include legislation introduced in 2011 by the EU that requires websites to request your consent to be tracked. But these annoying pop-ups have done little to stem the tide of intrusive ads.

This might soon change. Google Chrome – the world’s most popular web browser – will block third party cookies from next year.

But while this might seem like good news for people concerned about privacy it is not an altruistic move by Google. On the contrary it is likely to tighten the web giant’s iron fisted grip on the online ad industry.


A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette, Lancashire Post and other titles. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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