Sunday 9 January 2011

“Actually, internet user, I know where you’ve been”

Is this what internet users need to be told as surf the internet? Because, if we are to believe what webmasters like Guido Fawkes are bragging about, then perhaps we should all be wary about revealing too much of our past when we visit the internet sites which are capable of capturing such information.

To give you an idea of what these cookies are capable of telling a webmaster, read the explanation in the blog posted by Paul Staines, the webmaster behind Guido Fawkes. He didn’t start his blog purely to understand what his readers had been doing before they surfed to his site. No. The primary motivation for the creation of his blog was purely to make mischief at the expense of politicians and for the author’s own self-gratification. His alter ego, Guido, sees himself as a campaigning journalist who publishes via a website. He campaigns against political sleaze and hypocrisy. He doesn’t believe in impartiality nor pretend to it. Guido has frequently broken stories that have gone on to dominate newspaper pages. He often gets stories out before broadcasters. The blog is read widely in the Westminster political village and in newsrooms.

The blog was once the Guardian’s political commentary blog of the year and has won numerous new media awards Guido had never heard of before nor in all likelihood will ever again. Guido regularly appears in those wanky annual lists of media movers and shakers. He claims to pay no attention to them, but secretly always likes it when he is ranked higher than the BBC’s Nick Robinson.

This is what he said about those who visited his site during 2010, in a posting last week:

Across all distribution platforms last year the blog had approaching 30 million views and Guido would like to thank you readers who make this blog possible.

Where do you all come from? Overwhelmingly direct from browser bookmarked favourites, secondly via referrals from Google and the lesser search engines, thirdly via RSS feed readers. The next biggest source of traffic is from Guido’s own mailing list which was ahead of even Iain Dale in terms of click-throughs. He’ll be missed though, nearly 1 in 20 visitors to this blog last year came via Dale’s Diary…

In descending order of magnitude the Spectator, ConservativeHome, and the Telegraph’s blogs provide a lot of traffic and we thank them. Twitter and Facebook in comparison were relative laggards – Twitter for all the hype sends barely one tenth the traffic to Guido that his own email list generates. Social media gurus might reflect that Guido has largely withdrawn from Facebook, which sucked up his content and gave little back – traffic for their advertisers rather than Guido’s advertisers. The economics of blogging means that without reader traffic there would be no advertisers and without them there could be no content.

What I wonder is just what cookies were used by Guido to track his visitors. When I go shopping in real life, in, say, a shopping mall, the shopkeeper has no knowledge of where I’ve just been, so (presumably) I’m treated just like any other potential customer. No favours. Just a “Hello Sir, and how can I help you today” kind of attitude.

I wonder what the shopkeeper’s attitude were to be if they were able to track my recent whereabouts. How different might the shopping experience be then? “Hello Sir, and by the way, here are some holiday destinations we think you might like, and as a special gesture we’ll lower the price of those very same hotels displayed by the provider you’ve just visited by 5%, just for you.”

Surveillance or what?

Of course, if we were feeling mischievous, we could also use our knowledge that these internet retailers are assessing us on the basis of where we have come from by, say, coming from places which might confuse them. If, say, we were always to visit certain websites from the official website of Prince William and Prince Harry, the retailers might get awfully excited. Just which member of the Royal Household might be trying to get a special offer this time? – Should they offer that special discount, just in case the browser is someone really special? By the time we’ve given our actual details, it ought to be too late – we could have been offered the special “Royal Discount” and the webmaster ought not be able to go back on their word.

So, if anyone wants to join in the fun, try logging onto new websites from

And let’s see if, on 1 January 2012, Guido Fawkes comments on the huge increase in interest in his website from apparently Royal circles.

Before we get too excited, there is a slight possibility that the new rules on cookies will encourage some webmasters to be more transparent about the type of cookies that are in current use, and what users might do to disenable them, if they were so inclined. Call me old fashioned, but I really doubt that the rule changes will have that much of an impact. Most internet users don’t read current privacy policies (and they probably don’t care anyway).

Of course some people will remain extremely angry about the way information about “them” is being captured - and I’m sure that many of the people doing the capturing will argue that they have no idea who or even how many people are sharing the device which contains the cookie, so it’s not really personal data, anyway.

Source: posting Saturday, January 1, 2011