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Website Cookies - II : Repurposing Cookies

If you’ve visited a new website on your phone or computer, you’ve probably seen it: a notification informing you that the page is using cookies to track you and asking you to agree to let it happen, and it may tell you the tracking is to “enhance” your experience — even though it feels like it’s doing the opposite.

So, what are cookies? Cookies are small files that websites send to your device that the sites then use to monitor you and remember certain information about you — like what’s in your shopping cart on an e-commerce site, or your login information. These pop-up cookie notices all over the internet are well-meaning and supposed to promote transparency about your online privacy. But in the end, they’re not doing much: Most of us just tediously click “yes” and move on. If you reject the cookie tracking, sometimes, the website won’t work. But most of the time, you can just keep browsing. They’re not too different from the annoying pop-up ads we all ignore when we’re online. These cookie disclosures are also a symptom of one of the internet’s ongoing and fundamental failings when it comes to online privacy and who can access and resell users’ data, and by extension, who can use it to track them across the internet and in real life.

To back up a little bit, cookies are pieces of information saved about you when you’re online, and they track you as you browse. So say you go to a weather website and put in your zip code to look up what’s happening in your area; the next time you visit the same site, it will remember your zip code because of cookies. There are first-party cookies that are placed by the site you visit, and then there are third-party cookies, such as those placed by advertisers to see what you’re interested in and in turn serve you ads — even when you leave the original site you visited. This is how ads follow you around the internet. But when it comes to cookies, these pop-up notifications aren’t doing much. The internet and its biggest websites are constructed in a way that gives these sites easy access to users’ data, and they can essentially do whatever they want with it.


On the one hand, users should know what they’re getting into and what companies are tracking about them when they go to a website. On the other hand, asking them to check a box when they have very little idea what they’re agreeing to — and not giving them any other viable options — doesn’t seem to be an ideal solution. It worsens the user experience without doing anything very productive in return. This, again, reflects a more fundamental shortcoming when it comes to privacy and data collection on the internet.

But, for now, we’re stuck with these cookie pop-ups that make online browsing more difficult without accomplishing much else. Could we click through to see what’s being tracked about us? Sure. And might some websites still work if we say no to the cookies? Perhaps. But most of us are just going to keep saying yes.


This post is part of Understanding The Net series. Please check it out by clicking here.


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