No cookies for me, thank you!

No cookies for me, thank you!

A few weeks ago I moved into a new house. As per usual with moving, it led to buying some new things. Nothing exciting, really. Mainly refillable soap dispensers, new bathmats, and a few extra hand towels.

After looking at several options online (and obsessing over different designs), I finally bought a few items.

And now, all of my social media feeds serve me endless ads for linens, houseware items, furniture, and more. Some of them are even selling me the exact items I just purchased.

I know you all have experienced this before, and we make jokes about it like this:

Facebook post that reads, my favorite way to online shop is just to yell out what I'm looking for and wait for Facebook to post an ad for it.

Sometimes we even whisper around our own houses so Siri, Echo, and Google won’t hear what we’re talking about.

We’ve gotten so accustomed to the requests to “allow access to our contacts”, the prompts to “know your location”, and the pop-ups to accept “all cookies” that we don’t pay much attention to the details.

If we do opt to learn how our data is being used, we find ourselves scrolling through pages of legalese until we go numb and stop caring.

Ultimately, it’s easier to press “allow” or “accept” and move on.

Is this just how the world works today?

“Every day, your life leaves a trail of digital breadcrumbs that tech giants use to track you. You send an email, order some food, stream a show. They get back valuable packets of data to build up their understanding of your preferences. That data is fed into machine-learning algorithms to target you with ads and recommendations. Google cashes your data in for over $120 billion a year of ad revenue. Increasingly, we can no longer opt out of this arrangement.”
Karen Hao, MIT Technology Review

The data privacy movement

The feeling that we cannot opt out of our scrolls and clicks being tracked across the internet is creating greater tension and frustration for many consumers.

“Nearly three-quarters of the world are concerned about how companies are collecting their digital breadcrumbs – and what they plan to do with them.”
Ipsos Global Trends

This level of concern has been there since 2013, with a slight rise over the years, yet most people don’t feel empowered to, or skilled at, preventing their data from being collected, used, or sold.

In the absence of national or global data privacy regulations, and with big tech companies’ unwillingness to proactively change their policies (since it will hurt their bottom line too much), it’s come down to consumers and disruptive businesses to create change.

Researchers at Northwestern University have suggestions for how individual consumers can create collective action against unethical data collection practices. Such as:

Data strikes: using ad blockers, deleting your data from a platform, or deleting the app entirely.

Data poisoning: messing up data tracking algorithms by clicking ALL the ads and links so preferences can’t be determined (there’s even an app for that).

Conscious data contribution: choosing platforms that follow ethical data collection guidelines and moving away from ones that don’t.

Granted, these steps may not hurt the tech giants, but it is sending a signal that consumers expect better.

No cookies for me, thank you!

I only started to pay attention to data privacy a few months ago. Constantly pressing buttons to accept cookies on every website I visited started to get me wondering what the deal was, especially as someone who has their own website.

I know I don’t actively collect data on the people who visit my site and I’ve never opted into the programs (called pixels) where I send ads to someone on Facebook shortly after they visited my site.

So, I figured I wasn’t contributing to this data collection and privacy issue.

I was wrong.

Even though I don’t personally collect, review, or use site visitor data – I discovered that some of the programs I use to manage and post content on my website were freely taking and using that data, such as Google Analytics, WordPress, and YouTube.

And they do it automatically. It seems to be the “price” of it being free software for me to use.

That’s not cool by me. I absolutely do not want my website to be a portal for sneakily collecting user data. And there’s no need for it!

Marketers have been successfully reaching target audiences for decades without following and tracking their every move. I trust I can do that, as well.

So, I’ve opted out by paying up.

I purchased and installed a program called Fathom, which still provides me some basic information on how my site is performing, while going above and beyond with protecting user data.

Once installed, it also prevents Google and WordPress from collecting your data as well.

Here’s a video by one of the founders of Fathom explaining how it works. It’s entertaining, informative, and less than 4 minutes long.

I’ve also switched all my embedded videos over to Vimeo instead of YouTube, a service I now pay for as well.

Why Vimeo? Well, this policy statement on their site says it all:

Your data isn’t for sale.

Turns out, being secure is pretty simple. We never sell your data to third-party marketers, we protect your account with enterprise-grade security, and we let you control the privacy of your videos on and off Vimeo.

This includes the data of people watching the videos; whereas YouTube will track your views, even from the comfort of my website, and likely use it to send you recommended videos down the road.

I also discovered that this email system, MailChimp, automatically tracks if you opened my email and which links you pressed on.

Do you really need me spying on you while you read my newsletters? I think not.

Now, for every newsletter I send, I manually uncheck the boxes to track that information. And it’s been that way since the start of 2021.

I won’t lie, making these changes was a pain in the ass…especially moving the videos. But it felt really important to do. It felt like the right thing to do.

This quote by Jamie Barnard, chair of the Data Ethics Board at the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), captures my rationale well:

“When you see privacy as a fundamental right, then protecting it becomes profoundly rewarding.”

Ironic that it’s from an interview with Google…

Will you opt into this movement, too?

Although we’re in the early stages, this movement is likely to grow rapidly over the next 1-2 years.

We can choose to be ahead of this call for greater data privacy and transparency, or we can get caught playing catch-up.

If you manage your own website or your organization’s website – explore where and how data is being collected and used. If it doesn’t sound secure or ethical, then look into removing or deactivating those options.

Be wary of all free software! As Paul said in the above video, if we’re not paying in cash then we’re likely paying in user data.

The switch to Fathom Analytics and Vimeo will cost me an additional $260 a year. That feels like a very appropriate and worthwhile business expense that will not break the budget.

For all of us, it’s worth paying more attention to the apps and websites asking you to share data (do they really need to know your location???) and see if there are more human-centered, ethical options out there.

For example, I just started using duckduckgo as my search engine instead of Google as they, too, are committed to keeping your info private.

Being tracked and listened to doesn’t have to be “just how the world works today.” We can demand better practices and create a movement to achieve a more ethical internet system.

And as communicators, we can still get our messages in front of the right audiences by using insights on their habits and interests – without stalking their every move!

Just as we’ve done for decades.