Commentary

All Cookies Are Tracking Cookies

It has been a tough couple of weeks for cookies.

That's what happens when you run afoul of Walt Mossberg, the venerable personal technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Not only did he devote an entire column and part of another to issues that he has with some cookies, but he also took the time to respond to a high-profile blog post critical of his column.

Basically, Walt doesn't like the fact that some Web sites set "tracking cookies" on his browser as he surfs the Web. While he is fine with cookies that he can identify, like those that perform tasks such as remembering his password, he does not see value in what he terms "secret" cookies placed by advertising service companies or other companies he does not know. He feels violated by the use of these cookies, since he did not give permission to the companies to place these "tracking cookies."

While there is certainly a story in itself on the changes in the media landscape that now require one of the world's most important personal technology pundits to spend part of his Friday evenings reading and reacting to the blogosphere, suffice it to say that Walt's concerns about the use of cookies is a big thing to anyone in the online industry. Not only did Walt's column incite dozens of critical responses, but it also has sparked a number of stories on the subject in general consumer media publications as well. This story is going to get much bigger before it goes away.

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I disagree with Walt's position, but not for the same reasons that many others have. While I may think that several of his concerns about cookies are based on imperfect perceptions, I believe that the blame for the misplaced concerns lies clearly with the industry, and not with consumers or critics like Walt.

Before I begin, I must disclose my biases. First, my company uses behavioral targeting and the cookies that Walt complains about to deliver online advertising solutions. Second, I am a huge fan of Walt, and since my 1997 purchase of a VIAO, have bought a number of machines and PDAs only because Walt recommended them.

My first issue with his analysis is his attempt to break cookies into two classes, "good" cookies and "tracking" cookies. Let's be perfectly clear: ALL cookies are "tracking" cookies. Whether the cookie is placed to remember a person's password, to localize their weather report, to permit a site to recognize them as they browse, by an advertiser ensuring the same user doesn't see the same ad more than three times--whatever it is, they all "track" the user.

Segregating a limited group such as "tracking" cookies and labeling them as bad is wrong. Cookies are not inherently bad because they track browsers. That is what they all do. If cookies did not exist, much of the Web experience that users have today would not work. It would be sort of like removing the unique ID from the chip in your cell phone. It might make you feel impervious to any potential for privacy violations, and I suppose you might be able to save money, since the phone company wouldn't know who to bill when you used the phone. Of course, it would probably make your phone useless, since the network wouldn't be able to recognize you or your number when either you tried to make a call or someone was trying to call you. I suspect that is why, unlike the way cookies are treated in browsers, you don't have the ability to delete the unique ID features in you phone. The unique ID is there for a purpose, and the purpose is not inherently bad.

Why is this important?

The cookies that concern Walt are not "secret," nor are they delivered without the user's permission. For all reputable sites, including WSJ.com, their use is fully disclosed in their privacy policies. In fact, many argue that they are an implicit part of the "Terms of Service." In other words, if you want free content, you must accept the fact that the site is going to try to place cookies. You can block them. You can delete them. But you can't say that you didn't expect them. In addition, users control cookies. All of the major browsers have features that can be set to notify users every time a cookie is set, or to block cookies according to pre-set rules.

The problem is that no one has taken the time to educate consumers about what their cookies do and what to expect from them. Of course, before the days of browser-based cookie controls and anti-spyware software, this didn't matter. Cookies just happened in the background, and consumers rarely saw them or played with them.

Now, however, the game has changed. Consumers are in control. They are all like Walt. If they don't know what these things are, they assume the worst. Now is the time for those that place cookies to step up and fill this void. Now is the time for the industry to step up. Walt is just the messenger. Don't shoot him. Listen to him. Inform him. Delight him with what cookies can do for his browsing experience.

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