One of the true joys of growing older is that you can start whining about new technology that didn’t exist when you were a child. Take the humble “cookie.” How simple were the times when “cookie” was just a way to refer to diet-destroying disks of dough. Today, cookies also serve as the carriers of nearly infinite amounts of identifying information across the internet.
But what really is an internet cookie? Are they agents of good or, like the cookies of old, are they only good in moderation? Can adblockers really keep you and your data safe from unwanted cookies, while letting useful ones pass? Lots of people write into our Goodblock adblocker FAQ with these questions, so we decided to take a second to give you the scoop on cookies in terms that anyone can understand.
What is an online cookie?
In simple terms, cookies are just strings of text that are stored on your web browser. Let’s say you visit Amazon.com, type in your account information, and order one pound of Lucky Charms marshmallows (thank you, Amazon). Amazon’s server then sends your browser a text string along the lines of “ID=123456” — a cookie! When you visit Amazon a day later to purchase Tums, Amazon’s server requests the cookie from your browser and knows that you are user “123456” who bought a pound of marshmallows yesterday. Their servers then send a personalized page with your account info, plus some recommended items based on your browsing/purchasing history (probably Tums).
Hopefully that’s an easy example to understand, but cookies can actually provide a nearly endless amount of information. They have many properties, like how long they should last in your browser, which URLs can access them, and so on. For example, let’s say you log onto your YouTube account with your email address (and you don’t know how to block YouTube ads yet). YouTube may store this information as a cookie like “firstname.lastname@example.org” with additional parameters to say that it is only available on Youtube.com URLs and will last for 4 weeks.
If another site wants to know your email address, you will have to enter it there as well, because they will be denied access to YouTube’s cookie. Furthermore, after 4 weeks you will have to re-enter your email on YouTube. All of these things help ensure that cookie information is used appropriately and with consent (and actually most good sites like YouTube will encrypt the information for an additional layer of security).
With this simple structure, websites can collect an extraordinary amount of data on who you are and what you like. The things you click on, the sites you visit, the data you enter– all of these things are packaged up into cookies, stored on your browser and sent off to databases all over the world.
When cookies get out of hand
The above description may make it seem like cookies are purely wonderful things that allow Amazon and YouTube to save you time on login pages. The reality, however, is a bit more complicated.
Cookie data is can be collected and distributed in ways that might make some people uncomfortable. Each site may only have access to a limited amount of information, but the real power comes when all of that data is sold to, say, an advertising company that then aggregates it all into a profile. Now they not only know every site you visited in the last month, but also your age, occupation, marital status and so on. For some people that’s just too much information for any advertising company to know without asking for it. That’s where adblockers can help.
Adblockers allow you to choose your comfort level with data sharing
Most people download an adblocker because they are tired of seeing banner ads or want to block YouTube prerolls, or because they want faster internet speeds. What they may not realize is that the right adblocker also keeps a tight watch on cookie traffic. By default, adblockers like Goodblock allow most harmless first-party cookies that do things like log you into your Amazon account or keep you from having to re-input your Facebook password every time you want to distract yourself from work.
After those helpful cookies, almost any incoming or outgoing cookie request would be blocked. This is actually one of the pieces that makes your browser so much faster: there are so many data requests being made on most websites that it slows down page loading speeds. But what if you want to see an ad on a particular website, or you want them to be able to log data about you for whatever reason? Most good adblockers have a whitelist feature that disables the adblocking for any particular website (on Goodblock the whitelisting is just a simple button on the dropdown menu). So if you want you can allow sites you trust like Amazon and The New York Times to access all the data they normally would, while browsing worry free when you’re on sites without the same reputation.
Okay, so what’s the verdict? Are cookies good or bad?
Like most things with this new fangled internet of ours, it’s complicated. Cookies were built with good intentions as ways to transmit data between websites and browsing sessions so that your life is easier and better. Nonetheless, they are now used indiscriminately to collect and aggregate massive amounts of data on people, without anything resembling consent. For some, that’s totally fine; they assume that Facebook already knows what they had for breakfast and they don’t care. For others, they’d rather set a limit on how much of their data is collected and shared. With the rise of adblockers, people are now able to insert themselves into this invisible dialogue and dictate who gets to access their information and who doesn’t. Still not as friendly as a batch of chocolate chip diet-destroying disks of dough, but it’s a start.
Written by Joey DeBruin, twitter @joey_debruin