Web cookies creator says they were invented for privacy, not tracking

"My invention is at the technological heart of many of the advertising schemes, but it was not intended to be so."
28 January 2022

Cookies help tech companies collect data on consumers’ habits — key to the targeted web ad business that makes many billions of dollars per year.(Photo by Tibrina Hobson / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Now synonymous with the World Wide Web, cookies are at the heart of concerns over were meant to shield people, rather than serve as cyber snoops, their inventor told AFP. California-based engineer and entrepreneur Lou Montulli said the original “cookie” he created decades ago was intended to make life online easier by letting websites remember visitors.

Yet the technology has become a lightning rod, attacked for helping tech companies collect data on consumers’ habits key to the targeted web ad business that makes many billions of dollars per year. Also earlier this week, Google joined a growing list of tech companies announcing a new plan to block certain types of cookies — after the online ad giant’s previous proposals were roundly criticized.

Google was fined 150 million euros (approximately US$169 million) by France earlier this month over its cookie policies, and the Alphabet-owned company said on Tuesday that it would trial a new system called “Topics”, which allegedly would protect privacy while continuing to allow targeted advertising.

Chrome users will still be tracked and the websites they visit and advertising partners will be given three topics — broad themes supposed to correspond to their interests — based on the user’s browsing history. But the search juggernaut said the process of generating topics would take place entirely on the user’s device — even Google itself will not have access.

Advertisers will only be able to retain the topics for three weeks, and Chrome users will have the option of opting out entirely. Topics is intended to replace the previously-touted “Federated Learning of Cohorts” or FLoC system, which critics said would allow Google to hoard user data for itself and cut third parties out of the loop.

Internet companies have faced stricter rules since the EU passed a massive data privacy law in 2018 obliging firms to seek direct consent of users before installing cookies on their computers. Privacy campaigners have filed hundreds of complaints against companies including Google and Facebook arguing that they make it much easier to opt-in than to opt-out of web tracking cookies — causing the pioneering creator of cookies to look upon the current ad-heavy online landscape with consternation.

“My invention is at the technological heart of many of the advertising schemes, but it was not intended to be so,” said Montulli, who created them in 1994 while an engineer at Netscape. “It is simply a core technology to enable the web to function,” he said.

When discussing his invention, Montulli said the software snippets that let a website recognize individuals, helped make possible features such as automatic logins or remembering the contents of e-commerce shopping carts. Without what are called “first-party” cookies — which also are used by websites to interact directly with visitors — every time a person went online, they would be treated as though it were their first time.

Cookies tech companies collect data on consumers' habits key to the targeted web ad business that makes many billions of dollars per year

Facebook opened a pop-up kiosk for one day in 2018, at Bryant Park New York, where it fielded questions about its data-sharing practices and taught users how to understand its privacy controls. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)

But Montulli pointed to trouble with so-called “third-party” cookies, those generated by websites and tucked into visitors’ browsers, and ad networks that aggregate data from those snippets. “It is only through collusion between many websites and an ad network that ad tracking is allowed to happen,” Montulli argued.

Online ads cause web cookies debate

Websites share activity data with ad networks, which then use it to target ads for all their members. “If you search on some strange niche product and then you get bombarded with ads for that product at a number of websites, that is a weird experience,” Montulli said. “It is normal human pattern recognition to think if they know I was looking for ‘blue suede shoes’, they must know everything about me; then think I want to get out of this.”

Governments have taken notice, with the latest consequence being French authorities fining Google and Facebook 210 million euros ($237 million) this month over their use of cookies. If one website in a network also collects personally identifying information about a user, say a name or email, that could be “leaked” in a way that enables a browser to be associated with a person.

“It’s a network effect of all these different websites colluding together with the ad trackers,” Montulli said. “Cookies were originally designed to provide privacy.”

He said one possible response would be to stop targeting ads and start charging subscriptions for online services, which run on online advertising revenue. Montulli also supports phasing out third-party cookies, but warned getting rid of the software snippets altogether would drive advertisers to employ more stealthy tactics.

Advertising will find a way,” he said. “It will become a technological arms race; considering the billions of dollars at risk, the ad industry will do what they need to keep the lights on.”

Turning off third-party cookies could also unintentionally punish small websites by shutting them out of targeted ads that make money, giving even more power to tech giants such as Apple, Google and Facebook-parent Meta.

Regulation that keeps cookies in use, mandating controls such as letting users opt in or out of sharing data, may be the only viable long-term solution, Montulli said. “You really couldn’t use the web without cookies,” he mused. “But, we are going to need to be more nuanced about how they are used in advertising.”