The corroding value of the internet cookie, and an opportunity to shape a new market

Several years ago, I first heard Doc Searls make an amusing comment about one of the basic elements of the internet universe, the browser cookie.  With full credit to Phil Windley, Doc’s historical summary of ecommerce (and much of the modern internet) went like this:

A brief history of ecommerce can be summarized as this- 1995: The invention of the cookie. The end.

The browser cookie has reigned supreme for nearly two decades.  It has given rise to marketing empires like Double-Click (Google), Omniture, and nearly every imaginable advertising network of the modern web.  Cookies also provide context beyond ecommerce, since they help sites fine-tune the user experience and reduce friction for end users.

Cookies have become so pervasive that a contextualized web with out them would not be possible.  They’ve also extended well beyond context, as most cookies now actively track internet users, often without explicit permission.  With that backdrop, it’s hard to imagine that this atomic element of today’s web may soon fade away.

Perhaps because of how pervasive it is, and how invasive it is to personal privacy, the browser cookie is now under assault on many fronts.  The Europeans have taken to legislation as the primary vehicle to act against personal tracking technologies like cookies, Microsoft has gone as far as to ‘default‘ a do-not-track feature with their latest version of Internet Explorer, and there are at least a dozen such plugins for Firefox and Chrome.  Some ad-tech experts are actually predicting the complete collapse of the browser cookie in five years:

Five years at the most.

At my former company, my peers were the people who created cookies. We didn’t create them for this. It’s a very weak computing mechanism. It’s flawed, invasive, it’s got privacy issues, it’s going to go.

I think it will take five years to kill it. At that point, it’ll be like birds chirping and flowers blooming because we’ll find some kind of value proposition that allows consumers to trust us and opt into personalization. I term it, tailor don’t target.

via – The cookie has five years left says Merkle’s Paul Cimino | Ad Exchanger

It’s no surprise that ad-tech professionals see a paradigm shift away from cookies, but that shift isn’t being driven by a direct attack on the technology.  I can’t imagine that the ‘average’ internet user is proactively installing browser plugins to block cookies, so there has to be another reason why cookie usage has dropped precipitously.  At a prior point in the same blog post, Cimino reveals:

The second main reason is that non-cookieable devices – phones and iPads, Kindles and the like – are generating traffic somewhere between 35% and 40% of our overall traffic. So 35-40% of traffic is not from computers.

Consumer behavior has shifted away, which is forcing a shift away from cookies.  Although this might seem as a ‘win’ for privacy,  the ad-tech world has figured out even more invasive ways to target consumers:

I can’t cookie your iPhone or your Android phone. If you are at home or you go to the same place every day, I can see the IP and part of the user agent – enough information to reasonably identify you over and over and keep that good sync between the data – the first- and third-party data and the targeting opportunity that’s out there.

The takeaway here is that, as we see the value of cookies corroding, the technological fabric that has woven the modern web has produced even more invasive methods to track individual behavior.  At the same time, legislation and technology to counteract tracking technology is focused on the old cookie paradigm.  While the new tracking systems are relatively new, perhaps there is a window of opportunity for consumers to help shape a more balanced framework.

It is this balanced framework, that we are focusing on developing at Customer Commons:

Customer Commons holds a vision of the customer as an independent actor who retains autonomous control over his or her personal data, desires and intentions.  In this vision, each of us will act as the optimal point of integration and origination for data about us. Customers must be able to share their data and intentions selectively and voluntarily. Individuals must also be able to know exactly what information is being held about them by those who gather it, by whatever means. To achieve this, customers must be able to assert their own terms of engagement, in ways that are both practical and easy to understand for all sides.

I encourage you to join the conversation at Customer Commons.  Additionally, I will be devoting more time writing about how customer engagement in a modern marketplace will be significantly different, and how we call all help to shape that future, and more free, market.

If you are in the bay area during the week of May 6th, 2013, please consider joining the Customer Commons Salon that Monday evening.