Every time you open a website, you may notice that there is a pop-up asking “do you accept cookies?” and some would force you to do so for a promise of better website experience. Well, it all comes down to, surprise, advertisements.
First off, let’s define what cookies are. Techterms.com defines cookies as, “a small amount of data generated by a website and saved by your web browser. Its purpose is to remember information about you, similar to a preference file created by a software application.”
What it does...
To remember you.
There are basically two kinds of browser cookies; session and persistent cookies. Session cookies are the temporary ones and will be deleted after you closed your browser. These are usually used by e-commerce sites like storing orders in your shopping cart. Persistent, on the other hand, are designed to be saved in your web browser for a longer period of time. It has expiration though and can last from a few days to years(!). These are websites like Facebook allowing them to “remember you,” so you’ll no longer have to “sign-in” because your account name and/or password have been saved.
Let's have a mini-history lesson...
What inspired Lou Montulli, the inventor of cookies in 1994, to create these small amounts of data is to give memory to the web. Imagine adding a product to your cart online and when you go back to the home page of the site, all the products you added will be gone. The web before does not recognize that you are the same user who added the cart. Before, every click is a different visit/user. Imagine that every click you do on Facebook, you’d need to log-in again. It was more of like interacting with a person who has short-term memory loss, that every word you say to them vanishes after a few moments. That’s what cookies solved.
And it became revolutionary that it changes the way we use the web now. These cookies are collected by the user’s browser so every time they surf the net, he’ll no longer be a stranger.
First and Third-Party Cookies
What mentioned above are basically first-party cookies. Those are what we acquire from e-commerce, banking, medical, dating sites, etc. Indeed, it makes our surfing experience more efficient.
And now that our browser already has information about what we might want, it is easier for the ads to reach the right audience. This is the most basic explanation why after we browse a certain product, let’s say the latest smartphones, there’d be an advertisement of smartphones posted on our Facebook timeline. It is because the web already knows what you’re looking for and it posted the ads that you might want to consider buying.
It was the same year when Montulli invented cookies, the first digital banner ad appeared. And since then, ads run the world wide web.
Brands bought this system so they would know who might want to buy or avail their product or service. Now that they have information, they can now easily reach potential consumers.
Also, you have news sites and other platforms that have regular visitors and users to show ads to. There comes the middlemen, who make sure that the ads are delivered to the right people, the more personalized, the better.
Giants like Google and Facebook play both the role of middlemen and the platform because they have huge resources they can use to target ads. Once the brand sent cookies to the user, they can go to Facebook or Google and tell to show ads to the people you know who visited the brand’s site the last week.
Not just that, Google and Facebook can also access every cookie from the site you visited through third-party cookies. All the user’s activities or online behavior will act like a thread for the web to tailor personalized ads. And once it’s collected, there’s no turning back.
The Dark Side
With all the data about you being collected by big companies like Google and Facebook, does privacy still exist? Is it time to campaign for data rights? Should the government intervene now that these data are being used for political propaganda? [We encourage you to look for the issue of Cambridge Analytica in 2016.]
And can we really be defined by our online activities?