You clicked on that link on Facebook, you know that link, possibly clickbait but you wanted to see for yourself, after all it’s only a picture of an old shoe dug up from Roman times. But you don’t get the world’s most interesting shoe, you get a brief, tempting flash of the shoe, if you’re lucky, then a grey screen with a button beseeching you to accept cookies because they care about your privacy.
First of all, they don’t care about your privacy. Whatever they say that’s disingenuous at best.
GDPR came in back in May, before the heatwave and after all those emails asking you to give your permission or opt out of spammy emails. Back then the world seemed to be turning into a better place, we would have fewer spammy emails and our inboxes would, now, only be full of messages from Russian girlfriends, designer handbags or questionable investments. These are the sorts of messages that ignore regulations or those where you don’t want to request un-subscription in case it turns out to be phishing for valid email addresses. You can’t unsubscribe from Russian girlfriends, you’re stuck with them for life.
But at least GDPR was a step forward. Once the deadline was over we’d not get spam from all those legitimate companies, job agencies that didn’t get us that promised interview, that company that you once bought a shower from, or where you changed your energy supplier. How many showers do they think we could want? And if we create a log-in to a web site to buy a shower, apply for a job or switch energy suppliers, at least we’d now be able to unsubscribe.
So the world, or the Internet at least, was getting better. But the law of unintended consequences has stepped in once more.
If you want to see the shoe, or the amazing car or the weird instrument played by a musical genius from another continent, you now have to agree to cookies. Before GDPR you didn’t get a choice, you got cookies anyway and they tracked your data whether you liked it or not. You were blissfully unaware. The only indication of this snooping was when adverts would try to sell you that pocket watch you bought three weeks ago, yet they still showed you adverts for pocket watches. How many pocket watches could you possibly want? There’s a pattern here.
However, cookies do all sorts of things. On retail web sites they are convenient, they store authentication data or form field data so that we don’t have to enter it every time we log in, they store information on pages you’ve visited so the links change colour and they do all sorts of things that are useful to us. Cookies often enrich our experience of the web and, in many applications, they are not always spying on us.
Now, in the post GDPR world, many web sites give us a choice of viewing with cookies, thus gaining a richer more trouble-free experience, or without cookies so we have to enter our name every time we want to buy something. Of course, on news websites, or dare I say websites about Roman shoes, we don’t often buy things so the lack of cookies isn’t much of a loss. Therefore, we should be able to decide for ourselves if we want that convenience.
But that’s not what has happened. Granted many legitimate news websites have subtle requests for cookie permission, you can choose not to press the button which means you can view the site on a restricted screen space. But many, even some national newspapers, bully you into agreeing to cookies with such a small area of screen that that you might as well not bother. Others, such as the small but interesting website about the Roman shoe, simply refuse to show you anything.
So instead of the web becoming a place where our personal data is protected and we still have access to news and information, we find that playful passing interests either pass us by or we are forced into giving full lawful consent to the collection of our data to unknown companies.
Of course there’s no such thing as a free lunch, or even free news, but apparently now that also applies to curious stories about 2000 year old shoes, amazing cars or strange musical geniuses. We have a choice, we can have these curiosities or we can consent, in law, to being spied upon (and possibly worse), we just can’t have both. I suspect the answer is a judgement between giving away your data and what the website will give you. Roman shoes just won’t hack it.