In 1994 Lou Montulli invented “cookies,” tiny packets of data websites put into your Internet browser that help websites remember you, making it so your shopping cart didn't accidentally empty if you happened to click away. It was the beginning of website tracking.
When the public found out about them four years later, Internet privacy unease rippled through the news and modern browsers were quickly updated to give users the option to decline, delete them, or, most importantly, disable "third-party" cookies—ones not from the websites themselves but from sources like banner ads—that could be used by advertisers to track your browsing history and build a profile.
Since then, we've been playing what feels like an un-winnable game of Whack-a-Mole. Though most consumers have turned off third-party cookies, advertisers have found plenty of ways to fill the sites you visit with targeted ads for products you’ve narrowly avoided buying—a practice called "retargeting."
While “web bugs”—a cookie substitute—can be squashed by browser extensions like Ghostery, IP addresses masked by Tor, and “stable IDs” turned off on your iPhone, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to opt out of tracking from the one organization you actually pay—your Internet Service Provider.
Now we have learned, partly through this L.A. Times piece, that AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV last month has led to some upsetting changes for many people looking to protect their privacy and avoid targeted ads. Revamping its policies post-merger, the telecom giant requires consumers to individually opt out of 21 different ad companies. If you use multiple browsers, you have to do it on each one. Ditto for your mobile devices. Want to also block associated advertisers? You have to do that separately as well. Haven't cut the cord? You have to ask DirecTV not to choose your ads based on what you watch. It's like navigating a corn maze on a new moon.
The Times also notes that Verizon too makes its users do a similar dance to opt out, but is considerate enough to bundle a list of requisite links in one place and explain what they do with the collected data.
And if you happen to be one of those prudent people who clears cookies at the end a browsing session? You’ll have to do the entire opt out rigmarole all over again.
With more and more things on the Internet becoming free, it's understandable that we’ll suffer through some ads in exchange for free access to the content we desire—that’s just how advertising works. But when consumers get deliberately excluded from the transaction's decision-making process with secret tracking tools, layers upon layers of opt out pages, and novel-length privacy policies, it’s a major problem.