Saturday, January 8th, 2022
Monday, January 3rd, 2022
Wednesday, December 15th, 2021
Thursday, December 9th, 2021
I’d like to tell you something not to do to make your website better. Don’t add any third-party scripts to your site.
That may sound extreme, but at one time it would’ve been common sense. On today’s modern web it sounds like advice from a tinfoil-hat wearing conspiracy nut. But just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get your user’s data.
All I’m asking is that we treat third-party scripts like third-party cookies. They were a mistake.
Browsers are now beginning to block third-party cookies. Chrome is dragging its heels because the same company that makes the browser also runs an advertising business. But even they can’t resist the tide. Third-party cookies are used almost exclusively for tracking. That was never the plan.
In the beginning, there was no state on the web. A client requested a resource from a server. The server responded. Then they both promptly forgot about it. That made it hard to build shopping carts or log-ins. That’s why we got cookies.
In hindsight, cookies should’ve been limited to a same-origin policy from day one. That would’ve solved the problems of authentication and commerce without opening up a huge security hole that has been exploited to track people as they moved from one website to another. The web went from having no state to having too much.
Just take a minute to consider the implications of that: any third-party script on your site is allowing someone else to execute code on your web pages. That’s astonishingly unsafe.
It gets better. One of the pieces of code that this invited intruder can execute is the ability to pull in other third-party scripts.
You might think there’s no harm in adding that one little analytics script. Or that one little Google Tag Manager snippet. It’s such a small piece of code, after all. But in doing that, you’ve handed over your keys to a stranger. And now they’re welcoming in all their shady acquaintances.
Request Map Generator is a great tool for visualizing the resources being loaded on any web page. Try pasting in the URL of an interesting article from a news outlet or magazine that someone sent you recently. Then marvel at the sheer size and number of third-party scripts that sneak in via one tiny
script element on the original page.
That’s why I recommend that the one thing people can do to make their website better is to not add third-party scripts.
Easier said than done, right? Especially if you’re working on a site that currently relies on third-party tracking for its business model. But that exploitative business model won’t change unless people like us are willing to engage in a campaign of passive resistance.
I know, I know. If you refuse to add that third-party script, your boss will probably say, “Fine, I’ll get someone else to do it. Also, you’re fired.”
This tactic will only work if everyone agrees to do what’s right. We need to have one another’s backs. We need to support one another. The way people support one another in the workplace is through a union.
So I think I’d like to change my answer to the question that’s been posed.
The one thing people can do to make their website better is to unionize.
Saturday, December 4th, 2021
We’ve got click rates, impressions, conversion rates, open rates, ROAS, pageviews, bounces rates, ROI, CPM, CPC, impression share, average position, sessions, channels, landing pages, KPI after never ending KPI.
That’d be fine if all this shit meant something and we knew how to interpret it. But it doesn’t and we don’t.
The reality is much simpler, and therefore much more complex. Most of us don’t understand how data is collected, how these mechanisms work and most importantly where and how they don’t work.
Chris is doing another end-of-year roundup. This time the prompt is “What is one thing people can do to make their website bettter?”
This is my response.
I’d like to tell you something not to do to make your website better. Don’t add any third-party scripts to your site.
Monday, November 29th, 2021
While the dream of “personalized” ads has turned out to be mostly a nightmare, adtech has built some of the wealthiest companies in the world based on tracking us. It’s no surprise to me that as Members of the European Parliament contemplate tackling these many harms, Big Tech is throwing millions of Euros behind a “necessary evil” PR defense for its business model.
But tracking is an unnecessary evil.
Even in today’s tracking-obsessed digital ecosystem it’s perfectly possible to target ads successfully without placing people under surveillance. In fact right now, some of the most effective and highly valued online advertising is contextual — based on search terms, other non-tracking based data, and the context of websites rather than intrusive, dangerous surveillance.
Let’s be clear. Advertising is essential for small and medium size businesses, but tracking is not.
Rather than creating advertising that is more relevant, more timely and more likable we are creating advertising that is more annoying, more disliked, and more avoided.
I promise you, the minute tracking is outlawed, Facebook, Google and the rest of the adtech giants will claim that their new targeting mechanisms (whatever they turn out to be) are superior to tracking.
Behavioral ads are only more profitable than context ads if all the costs of surveillance – the emotional burden of being watched; the risk of breach, identity-theft and fraud; the potential for government seizure of surveillance data – is pushed onto internet users. If companies have to bear those costs, behavioral ads are a total failure, because no one in the history of the human race would actually grant consent to all the things that gets done with our data.
Tracking-industry body IAB Europe told that it has infringed the GDPR, and its “consent” pop-ups used by Google and other tech firms are unlawful. - Irish Council for Civil Liberties
Google and the entire tracking industry relies on IAB Europe’s consent system, which has now been found to be illegal.
Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021
Even if you can somehow justify using tracking technologies (which don’t work reliably) to make general, statistical decisions (“fewer people open our emails when the subject contains the word ‘overdraft’!”), you can’t make individual decisions based on them. That’s just wrong.
Prompted by my post on tracking, Chris does some soul searching about his own use of tracking.
I’m interested not just in the ethical concerns and my long-time complacency with industry norms, but also as someone who very literally sells advertising.
He brings up the point that advertisers expect to know how many people opened a particular email and how many people clicked on a particular link. I’m sure that’s right, but it’s also beside the point: what matters is how the receiver of the email feels about having that information tracked. If they haven’t given you permission to do it, you can’t just assume they’re okay with it.
Tuesday, November 16th, 2021
The idea that it’s alright to do whatever unethical thing is currently the industry norm is widespread in tech, and dangerous.
It stood out to me because I had been thinking about certain practices that are widespread, accepted, and yet strike me as deeply problematic. These practices involve tracking users.
The first problem is that even the terminology I’m using would be rejected. When you track users on your website, it’s called analytics. Or maybe it’s stats. If you track users on a large enough scale, I guess you get to just call it data.
Those words—“analytics”, “stats”, and “data”—are often used when the more accurate word would be “tracking.”
Or to put it another way; analytics, stats, data, numbers …these are all outputs. But what produced these outputs? Tracking.
Here’s a concrete example: email newsletters.
Do you have numbers on how many people opened a particular newsletter? Do you have numbers on how many people clicked a particular link?
You can call it data, or stats, or analytics, but make no mistake, that’s tracking.
Follow-on question: do you honestly think that everyone who opens a newsletter or clicks on a link in a newsletter has given their informed constent to be tracked by you?
You may well answer that this is a widespread—nay, universal—practice. Well yes, but a) that’s not what I asked, and b) see the above quote from Design For Safety.
You could quite correctly point out that this tracking is out of your hands. Your newsletter provider—probably Mailchimp—does this by default. So if the tracking is happening anyway, why not take a look at those numbers?
But that’s like saying it’s okay to eat battery-farmed chicken as long as you’re not breeding the chickens yourself.
When I try to argue against this kind of tracking from an ethical standpoint, I get a frosty reception. I might have better luck battling numbers with numbers. Increasing numbers of users are taking steps to prevent tracking. I had a plug-in installed in my mail client—Apple Mail—to prevent tracking. Now I don’t even need the plug-in. Apple have built it into the app. That should tell you something. It reminds me of when browsers had to introduce pop-up blocking.
If the outputs generated by tracking turn out to be inaccurate, then shouldn’t they lose their status?
But that line of reasoning shouldn’t even by necessary. We shouldn’t stop tracking users because it’s inaccurate. We should stop stop tracking users because it’s wrong.
Thursday, November 4th, 2021
Writing on web.dev
Chrome Dev Summit kicked off yesterday. The opening keynote had its usual share of announcements.
There was quite a bit of talk about privacy, which sounds good in theory, but then we were told that Google would be partnering with “industry stakeholders.” That’s probably code for the kind of ad-tech sharks that have been making a concerted effort to infest W3C groups. Beware.
But once Una was on-screen, the topics shifted to the kind of design and development updates that don’t have sinister overtones.
My favourite moment was when Una said:
We’re also partnering with Jeremy Keith of Clearleft to launch Learn Responsive Design on web.dev. This is a free online course with everything you need to know about designing for the new responsive web of today.
This is what’s been keeping me busy for the past few months (and for the next month or so too). I’ve been writing fifteen pieces—or “modules”—on modern responsive web design. One third of them are available now at web.dev/learn/design:
The rest are on their way: typography, responsive images, theming, UI patterns, and more.
I’ve been enjoying this process. It’s hard work that requires me to dive deep into the nitty-gritty details of lots of different techniques and technologies, but that can be quite rewarding. As is often said, if you truly want to understand something, teach it.
Oh, and I made one more appearance at the Chrome Dev Summit. During the “Ask Me Anything” section, quizmaster Una asked the panelists a question from me:
Given the court proceedings against AMP, why should anyone trust FLOC or any other Google initiatives ostensibly focused on privacy?
(Thanks to Jake for helping craft the question into a form that could make it past the legal department but still retain its spiciness.)
The question got a response. I wouldn’t say it got an answer. My verdict remains:
I’m not sure that Google Chrome can be considered a user agent.
The fundamental issue is that you’ve got a single company that’s the market leader in web search, the market leader in web advertising, and the market leader in web browsers. I honestly believe all three would function better—and more honestly—if they were separate entities.
Monopolies aren’t just damaging for customers. They’re damaging for the monopoly too. I’d love to see Google Chrome compete on being a great web browser without having to also balance the needs of surveillance-based advertising.
Monday, August 30th, 2021
A very open and honest post by Nolan on trying to live with technology without sacrificing privacy.
Monday, May 24th, 2021
Lou’s idea was just for a server to remember the last state of a browser’s interaction with it. But that one move—a server putting a cookie inside every visiting browser—crossed a privacy threshold: a personal boundary that should have been clear from the start but was not.
Once that boundary was crossed, and the number and variety of cookies increased, a snowball started rolling, and whatever chance we had to protect our privacy behind that boundary, was lost.
The Doctor is incensed.
At this stage of the Web’s moral devolution, it is nearly impossible to think outside the cookie-based fecosystem.
Saturday, May 22nd, 2021
A deep dive into GDPR.
Got Google Analytics on your site? You should probably read this.
Saturday, May 15th, 2021
The discussions around data policy still feel like they are framing data as oil - as a vast, passive resource that either needs to be exploited or protected. But this data isn’t dead fish from millions of years ago - it’s the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of over a third of the world’s population, the largest record of human thought and activity ever collected. It’s not oil, it’s history. It’s people. It’s us.
I subscribe to Peter Gasston’s newsletter, The Tech Landscape. It’s good. Peter’s a smart guy with his finger on the pulse of many technologies that are beyond my ken. I recommend subscribing.
But I was very taken aback by what he wrote in issue 202. It was to do with algorithmic recommendation engines.
This week I want to take a little dump on a tweet I read. I’m not going to link to it (I’m not that person), but it basically said something like: “I’m afraid to Google something because I don’t want the algorithm to think I like it, and I’m afraid to click a link because I don’t want the algorithm to show me more like it… what a cage.”
- GET requests shouldn’t have side effects. Adding to a dossier on someone’s browsing habits definitely counts as a side effect.
- It is literally a fundamental principle of the web platform that it should be safe to visit a web page.
But Peter describes ubiquitous surveillance as a feature, not a bug:
It’s observing what someone likes or does, then trying to make recommendations for more things like it—whether that’s books, TV shows, clothes, advertising, or whatever. It works on probability, so it’s going to make better guesses the more it knows you; if you like ten things of type A, then liking one thing of type B shouldn’t be enough to completely change its recommendations. The problem is, we don’t like “the algorithm” if it doesn’t work, and we don’t like it if works too well (“creepy!”). But it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage.
He would be correct if the balance of power were tipped towards the person actively looking for recommendations. As I said in my earlier post:
Don’t get me wrong: building a profile of someone based on their actions isn’t inherently wrong. If a user taps on “like” or “favourite” or “bookmark”, they are actively telling the server to perform an update (and so those actions should be POST requests). But do you see the difference in where the power lies?
When Peter says “it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage” that may be true for him, but that is not a shared feeling, as the original tweet demonstrates. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss someone else’s psychological pain because you don’t think they “get it”. I’m pretty sure everyone “gets” how recommendation engines are supposed to work. That’s not the issue. Trying to provide relevant content isn’t the problem. It’s the unbelievably heavy-handed methods that make it feel like a cage.
Peter uses the metaphor of a record shop:
“The algorithm” is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice; imagine you went to a record shop (remember them?) which had every recording ever released; how would you find new music? You’d either buy music by bands you know you already liked, or you’d take a pure gamble on something—which most of the time would be a miss. So you’d ask a store worker, and they’d recommend the music they liked—but that’s no guarantee you’d like it. A good worker would ask what type of music you like, and recommend music based on that—you might not like all the recommendations, but there’s more of a chance you’d like some. That’s just what “the algorithm” does.
But that’s not true. You don’t ask “the algorithm” for a recommendation—it foists them on you whether you want them or not. A more apt metaphor would be that you walked by a record shop once and the store worker came out and followed you down the street, into your home, and watched your every move for the rest of your life.
What Peter describes sounds great—a helpful knowledgable software agent that you ask for recommendations. But that’s not what “the algorithm” is. And that’s why it feels like a cage. That’s why it is a cage.
The original tweet was an open, honest, and vulnerable insight into what online recommendation engines feel like. That’s a valuable insight that should be taken on board, not dismissed.
And what a lack of imagination to look at an existing broken system—that doesn’t even provide good recommendations while making people afraid to click on links—and shrug and say that this is the best we can do. If this really is “is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice” then it’s no wonder that people feel like they need to go on a digital detox and get away from their devices in order to feel normal. It’s like saying that decapitation is the best way of solving headaches.
Imagine living in a surveillance state like East Germany, and saying “Well, how else is the government supposed to make informed decisions without constantly monitoring its citizens?” I think it’s more likely that you’d feel like you’re in a cage.
Apples to oranges? Kind of. But whether it’s surveillance communism or surveillance capitalism, there’s a shared methodology at work. They’re both systems that disempower people for the supposedly greater good of amassing data. Both are built on the false premise that problems can be solved by getting more and more data. If that results in collateral damage to people’s privacy and mental health, well …it’s all for the greater good, right?
It’s fucking bullshit. I don’t want to live in that cage and I don’t want anyone else to have to live in it either. I’m going to do everything I can to tear it down.
Thursday, May 6th, 2021
The way most of the internet works today would be considered intolerable if translated into comprehensible real world analogs, but it endures because it is invisible.
You can try to use Facebook’s own tools to make the invisible visible but that kind of transparency isn’t allowed.
Sunday, April 25th, 2021
A round-up of alternatives to Google Analytics.