Website cookies are online monitoring tools, and the commercial and government entities that use them prefer that people don’t read these notifications too closely. People who read the notices carefully will find that they have the option of saying no to some or all cookies.
The problem is, without proper attention, these notifications become an annoyance and a subtle reminder that your online activity can be tracked.
As a researcher who studying online monitoringI’ve found that not reading notifications carefully can lead to negative emotions and affect what people do online.
How cookies work
Browser cookies are nothing new. They were developed in 1994 by a Netscape programmer to optimize browsing experiences by exchanging user data with specific websites. These small text files allowed websites to remember your passwords for easier logins and to hold items in your shopping cart for later purchases.
But over the past three decades, cookies have evolved to track users across websites and devices. This is how items in your Amazon shopping cart on your phone can be used to personalize the ads you see on Hulu and Twitter on your laptop. A study found that 35 out of 50 popular websites illegally use website cookies.
European regulations require websites to receive your permission before using cookies. You can avoid this type of third-party tracking with website cookies by carefully reading the platforms’ privacy policies and disabling cookies, but people usually don’t.
A study found that, on average, internet users spend just 13 seconds reading a website’s terms of service before consenting to cookies and other outrageous terms, such as, as the study included, exchanging their firstborn for a service on the platform.
These terms of service provisions are cumbersome and intended to create friction.
Friction is a technique used to slow down Internet users, either to maintain government control or to reduce customer service charges. Autocratic governments that want to maintain control through state surveillance without compromising their public legitimacy frequently use this technique. Friction involves creating frustrating experiences in the design of websites and apps so that users trying to avoid surveillance or censorship become so embarrassed that they eventually give up.
How cookies affect you
My most recent research was to understand how website cookie notifications are used in the United States to create friction and influence user behavior.
To do this research, I looked into the concept of blind conformity, an idea made infamous by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s experiments – now seen as a radical breach of research ethics – asked participants to administer electric shocks to other study participants to test their obedience to authority.
Milgram’s research has shown that people often consent to a request from an authority without first deliberating whether it is the right thing to do. In a much more common case, I suspected this was also what happened with website cookies.
I conducted a large, nationally representative experiment that presented users with a boilerplate browser cookie pop-up message, similar to the one you may have encountered while reading this article.
I assessed whether the cookie message triggered an emotional response – either anger or fear, both of which are expected responses to online friction. And then I assessed how these cookie notifications influenced people’s willingness to express themselves online.
Online expression is at the heart of democratic life, and various types of internet surveillance are known to suppress it.
The results showed that cookie notifications triggered strong feelings of anger and fear, suggesting that website cookies are no longer perceived as the useful online tool for which they were designed. Instead, they are a barrier to accessing information and making informed decisions about privacy permissions.
And, as suspected, cookie notifications also reduced people’s stated desire to express opinions, seek information, and challenge the status quo.
Legislation regulating cookie notices such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation and California Consumer Privacy Act were designed with the public in mind. But the online tracking notification creates an unintended boomerang effect.
Second, cookie permissions change regularly, and the data requested and how it will be used should be front and center.
And third, American Internet users should have the right to be forgotten, or the right to have online information about them deleted that is harmful or not used for its original intent, including data collected by tracking cookies. . This is a provision granted in the General Data Protection Regulation but does not extend to US internet users.
In the meantime, I recommend people read the cookie terms and conditions and only accept what is necessary.