As the graffito goes, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Sadly, I’d like to add that neither is the internet. I’ve begun to feel all wistful and misty-eyed about the good old days when every click wasn’t tracked by Amazon, Facebook or a million other websites.
Back then, we browsed the web in the same carefree manner as flicking through the pages of newspapers and magazines or surfing TV channels. If something caught our interest, perhaps an ad showing a pair of trainers or a coffee mug with a clever slogan, we allowed ourselves an idle diversion before returning to the main page.
I did this a dozen times in the course of a browsing session. It was like window shopping from the comfort of home, usually while reading news stories of the day or tapping in a Google search like “best spaghetti carbonara recipe”.
Now, however, the computer window shopping experience involves the shopkeeper dashing outside to tell you there’s a ton of similar items if you’d like to come in. Spookily, this shopkeeper knows what you’ve bought in the past from other shops and sometimes knows your name.
This amounts to cyberstalking, and we’ve all been lured into this virtual shopping mall from which there is currently no escape apart, of course, from logging out forever. We are intimidated by all these little pop-up windows which say things like “Accept all cookies” or “We need your consent to proceed” followed by “Click yes and move on”.
Cookies are tiny files the websites you visit install on your computer. Often misleadingly worded, the consent pop-ups are a foot-in-the-door technique used to identify you, and your details are then passed onto Facebook, Google and others so that you can be flagged up each time you go online.
If you try to opt out of cookies you are met by a confusing array of options, when all you really wanted to do was find if a pair of trainers you’re interested in was available in a wide fitting. The price of getting an answer to this question is to have the same brand of trainers haunt you through Facebook and other websites for weeks on end. Some websites refuse to work if you don’t accept their cookies.
Another way of dragging you in an arm-lock through the virtual shop door is to have annoying pop-up ads like ones I’ve seen on Mail Online with the “close” checkbox so small you need the fingertip of a five year old to avoid opening the ad and triggering a Facebook alert, which will then find you among its 2.7 billion worldwide users and bombard you with ads for similar products.
Almost every website now sets cookies. Even the saintly Guardian knows roughly where I live, and targets me with adverts for local goods and services. What happened to data protection that’s supposed to stop this sort of thing happening? The answer is, when you accept cookies you click away your right to remaining anonymous on webpages.
Don’t worry, though, because earlier this year the EU published guidelines banning some of the worst uses of cookies and stopping those so-called “cookie walls” which make viewing a website conditional on consenting to be tracked. Unfortunately, we’re no longer part of the EU.
Happy browsing folks.