Opinion

Letter from the editor: Not all cookies are bad for you

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Five years ago, while working at The Boston Globe, my heart sank one morning after getting emails alerting me to a New York Times story about our company—or more specifically, about one of our websites, Boston.com. 

The Times had devoted 1,200 words on the front page of its business section to ranking how 50 of the most popular news websites loaded data, specifically advertisements, on mobile devices. The article stopped me in my tracks:

“The benefits of ad blockers stood out the most when loading the Boston.com website. With ads, that home page on average measured 19.4 megabytes; with ads removed using Crystal or Purify, it measured four megabytes, and with 1Blocker, it measured 4.5 megabytes. On a 4G network, this translated to the page taking 39 seconds to load with ads and eight seconds to load without ads.”

The story estimated that the cost of loading all those ads on an average U.S. mobile data plan was 40 cents per page. It made for a dramatic headline.

I was reminded of this by a tool the tech watchdog organization The Markup released this week, called Blacklight. The application, which bills itself as a “real-time website privacy inspector,” scans websites’ code to see how many ad trackers and cookies ping your device when you land on a page. It was shared widely in the digital media community, with users entering their favourite websites into the tool to see what it revealed. 

Naturally, we had to put some of the most popular Canadian news websites to the test, including The Logic.

Our findings showed that the average news publication placed 19 ad trackers and 28 third-party cookies on user’s devices. The most trackers and cookies were placed by globalnews.ca, an advertising-heavy site. (Disclosure: I used to work at Global News and helped launch its online properties). I reached out to Corus Entertainment, its parent company, but it did not respond in time for publication. 

Hanna Lee

Much to my relief, The Logic came in well under the industry average, with 18 total trackers and cookies.

So should you be concerned about news publishers like us tracking your every move across the internet? 

I asked Scott Snowden from our longtime development team, Flywheel Strategic, for his thoughts (all the while doing everything I could not to freak out on behalf of our users). 

“Perhaps I’m biased because I’m in the industry, but I find this stuff very alarmist,” Scott told me. 

“These tools help online businesses operate more effectively and more efficiently. As an entrepreneur and technology consultant, these solutions and technologies have helped enable our own marketing and business growth, as well as that of our clients.”

Scott has a point. Just as there’s a difference between chocolate-chip and oatmeal cookies, not all digital cookies are bad for you. 

Looking at The Logic’s Blacklight audit, one would think we know everything about you because, the tool says, “this site allows Google Analytics to follow you across the internet.” That’s simply not true. We don’t have any programmatic advertising on our site. We use Google Analytics only to understand what our customers are interested in, and why and how they arrived at our storefront. This information is aggregated and anonymous, and it allows us to improve our product, ultimately making it better for you, our current and future customers.

CBC News ranked in the middle of the pack, with 58 total ad trackers and third-party cookies. Is Canada’s public broadcaster using these trackers for nefarious purposes? Not exactly.

“CBC uses cookies to improve the performance of its digital services. For example, the use of cookies from Chartbeat, a common industry tool, helps our newsroom understand how stories are performing, how many reads,” CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson told me. “Adobe, another industry standard measurement suite, is used to measure page views and video streams consumed.” 

“We and our advertising partners use cookies to record and monitor traffic to ads. CBC/Radio-Canada follows industry standards, industry best practices, and Canadian privacy laws in this regard. We require all data to be anonymous.”

For its part, The Markup states on its website that, “Blacklight results should not be taken as the final word on potential privacy violations by a given website. Rather, they should be treated as an initial automated inspection that requires further investigation before a definitive claim can be made.”

Fair enough.

Take The Globe and Mail, for example, according to Blacklight, the publisher only had three ad trackers and cookies combined, an astonishingly low number. So we used another tracking tool and counted at least a dozen trackers on the page. The Globe isn’t hiding this, by the way. It says as much in its privacy policy. So does CBC News, and so do we.

Julia Angwin, founder and editor-in-chief of The Markup, told me over email Friday night that “Definitions for what a ‘tracker’ is can be fuzzy.” The Markup relied on existing work from Princeton University researchers, who also reviewed the publication’s methodology before the tool was released.

“Blacklight’s definition for trackers is more conservative than those used by ad blockers. We rely on the EasyPrivacyList (not the EasyList) which specifically blocks requests for tracking urls, not all ads. This is one of the reasons the numbers might come up as low.” said Angwin.

There are many reasons to be mindful of privacy and how our data is being tracked in the surveillance economy. The Social Dilemma has become a bonafide Netflix hit as more people awaken to the dangers of extrapolating personal data for financial gain. Canada’s heritage minister has been doing interviews for weeks that emphatically declare data as the new oil. Heck, even I hosted a podcast for two seasons on this very topic. But it’s also good to be reminded that sometimes, these digital tools aren’t being used for nefarious reasons—they can also be used to help make small-business products better.  

As for Boston.com, had the Times reporter ever reached out to us for an explanation, I would’ve explained that the heavy data load he experienced on the site didn’t take into account how much of that data was “lazy-loaded” onto the device. That essentially means the user is only given the data needed to read on their device when they scrolled down.

Even so, in running a few tests this week, Boston.com fully downloaded came in at 5.16 megabytes, down 75 per cent from five years ago, and well below the industry average of 6.76 megabytes.