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Have you ever wondered why you have to consent to terms required by the websites of the world, rather than the other way around? Or why you have no record of what you have accepted or agreed to?

Blame the cookie.

Have you wondered why you have no more privacy on the Web than what other parties grant you (which is none at all), and that you can only opt in or out of choices that others provide—while the only controls you have over your privacy are to skulk around like a criminal (thank you, Edward Snowden and Russell Brand, for that analogy) or to stay offline completely?

Blame the cookie.

And have you paused to wonder why Europe’s GDPR regards you as a mere “data subject” while assuming that the only parties qualified to be “data controllers” and “data processors” are the sites and services of the world, leaving you with little more agency than those sites and services allow, or provide you?

Blame the cookie.

Or why California’s CCPA regards you as a mere “consumer” (not a producer, much less a complete human being), and only gives you the right to ask the sites and services of the world to give back data they have gathered about you, or not to “sell” that personal data, whatever the hell that means?

Blame the cookie.

There are more examples, but you get the point: this situation has become so established that it’s hard to imagine any other way for the Web to operate.

Now here’s another point: it didn’t have to be that way.

The World Wide Web that Tim Berners-Lee invented didn’t have cookies. It also didn’t have websites. It had pages one could publish or read, at any distance across the Internet.

This original Web was simple and peer-to-peer. It was meant to be personal as well, meaning an individual could publish with a server or read with a browser. One could also write pages easily with an HTML editor, which was also easy to invent and deploy.

It should help to recall that the Apache Web server, which has published most of the world’s Web pages across most the time the Web has been around, was meant originally to work as a personal server. That’s because the original design assumption was that anyone, from individuals to large enterprises, could have a server of their own, and publish whatever they wanted on it. The same went for people reading pages on the Web.

Back in the 90s my own website,, ran on a box under my desk. It could do that because, even though my connection was just dial-up speed, it was on full time over its own static IP address, which I easily rented from my ISP. In fact, that I had sixteen of those addresses, so I could operate another server in my office for storing and transferring articles and columns I wrote to Linux Journal. Every night a cron utility would push what I wrote to the magazine itself. Both servers ran Apache. And none of this was especially geeky. (I’m not a programmer and the only code I know is Morse.)

My point here is that the Web back then was still peer-to-peer and welcoming to individuals who wished to operate at full agency. It even stayed that way through the Age of Blogs in the early ’00s.

But gradually a poison disabled personal agency. That poison was the cookie.

Technically a cookie is a token—a string of text—left by one computer program with another, to help the two remember each other. These are used for many purposes in computing.

But computing for the Web got a special kind of cookie called the HTTP cookie. This, Wikipedia says (at that link)

…is a small piece of data stored on the user‘s computer by the web browser while browsing a website. Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items added in the shopping cart in an online store) or to record the user’s browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited in the past). They can also be used to remember pieces of information that the user previously entered into form fields, such as names, addresses, passwords, and payment card numbers.

It also says,

Cookies perform essential functions in the modern web. Perhaps most importantly, authentication cookies are the most common method used by web servers to know whether the user is logged in or not, and which account they are logged in with.

This, however, was not the original idea, which Lou Montulli came up with in 1994. Lou’s idea was just for a server to remember the last state of a browser’s interaction with it. But that one move—a server putting a cookie inside every visiting browser—crossed a privacy threshold: a personal boundary that should have been clear from the start but was not.

Once that boundary was crossed, and the number and variety of cookies increased, a snowball started rolling, and whatever chance we had to protect our privacy behind that boundary, was lost.

Today that snowball is so large that nearly all personal agency on the Web happens within the separate silos of every website, and compromised by whatever countless cookies and other tracking methods are used to keep track of, and to follow, the individual.

This is why most of the great stuff you can do on the Web is by grace of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, WordPress and countless others, including those third parties.

Bruce Schneier calls this a feudal system:

Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals.

Bruce wrote that in 2012, about the time we invested hope in Do Not Track, which was designed as a polite request one could turn on in a browser, and servers could obey.

Alas, the tracking-based online advertising business and its dependents in publishing dismissed Do Not Track with contempt.

Starting in 2013, we serfs fought back, by the hundreds of millions, blocking ads and tracking: the biggest boycott in world history. This, however, did nothing to stop what Shoshana Zuboff calls Surveillance Capitalism and Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger call Re-engineering Humanity.

Today our poisoned minds can hardly imagine having native capacities of our own that can operate at scale across all the world’s websites and services. To have that ability would also be at odds with the methods and imperatives of personally targeted advertising, which requires cookies and other tracking methods. One of those imperatives is making money: $Trillions of it.

The business itself (aka adtech) is extremely complex and deeply corrupt: filled with fraud, botnets and malwareMost of the money spent on adtech also goes to intermediaries and not to the media you (as they like to say) consume. It’s a freaking fecosystem, and every participant’s dependence on it is extreme.

Take, for example, Vizio TVs. As Samuel Axon puts it in Ars TechnicaVizio TV buyers are becoming the product Vizio sells, not just its customers Vizio’s ads, streaming, and data business grew 133 percent year over year.

Without cookies and the cookie-like trackers by which Vizio and its third parties can target customers directly, that business wouldn’t be there.

As a measure of how far this poisoning has gone, dig this: FouAnalyticsPageXray says the Ars Technica story above comes to your browser with all this spyware you don’t ask for or expect when you click on that link:

Adserver Requests: 786
Tracking Requests: 532
Other Requests: 112

I’m also betting that nobody reporting for a Condé Nast publication will touch that third rail, which I have been challenging journalists to do in 139 posts, essays, columns and articles, starting in 2008.

(Please prove me wrong, @SamuelAxon—or any reporter other than Farhad Manjoo, who so far is the only journalist from a major publication I know to have bitten the robotic hand that feeds them. I also note that the hand in his case is The New York Times‘, and that it has backed off a great deal in the amount of tracking it does. Hats off for that.)

At this stage of the Web’s moral devolution, it is nearly impossible to think outside the cookie-based fecosystem. If it was, we would get back the agency we lost, and the regulations we’re writing would respect and encourage that agency as well.

But that’s not happening, in spite of all the positive privacy moves Apple, Brave, Mozilla, Consumer Reports, the EFF and others are making.

My hat’s off to all of them, but let’s face it: the poisoning is too far advanced. After fighting it for more than 22 years (dating from publishing The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999), I’m moving on.

To here.

The Los Angeles in your head is a Neutra house. You’ve seen many of them in movies, and some of them in many movies. Some of those are now gone, alas, as is the architect and preservationist who also designed, or helped design, many of the buildings that bear his surname. Dion Neutra died last week, at 93 years of work more than of age. Here is a Google search for his obituary, which brings up a great many entries.

Dion was a good man and a good friend. Here he is in our Santa Barbara back yard a few years ago:

If you read Dion’s obituaries (of which the longest and best is the LA Times’), you’ll learn much about his life, work and legacy. But I know some things that don’t quite make it through those channels, so I’ll fill in a couple of those details.

One is that Dion was a peripatetic correspondent, mostly by email, especially via his White Light newsletter, which he sent out on a schedule that rounded to always. “White Light” meant healing energy, which was directed by Dion and his readers toward friends who might need some. There were many other topics in their midst (he could hold forth at great length on you-name-it), but health was perhaps the biggest one. Over the last few months, Dion’s letter increasingly reported on his own decline (which seemed radically at odds with his high lifelong energy level, which was invested in a great deal of golf, among other physical activities), but always also about what others were up to. The last words of his last letter, on October 24, were “Lots of love to everybody. Bye!”

The other is that Dion was eager to jump on the Internet, starting in the last millennium. I know this because I was the guy he asked for help putting up his first website. Which I did, at a domain name I also helped him acquire. Here is the first capture of it, by the Internet Archive, 21 years and 1 day ago. I remember arguing with Dion about making the whole site a constant appeal to save one Neutra building or another, but that turned out to be his main work, from that point onward. He failed in some efforts, but succeeded in others. Thanks to that work, Neutra architecture and all it stands for live on.

Lots of love to you and what you’ve done for us all, old friend.

In a press release, Amazon explained why it backed out of its plan to open a new headquarters in New York City:

For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.

So, even if the economics were good, the politics were bad.

The hmm for me is why not New Jersey? Given the enormous economic and political overhead of operating in New York, I’m wondering why Amazon didn’t consider New Jersey first. Or if it’s thinking about it now.

New Jersey is cheaper and (so I gather) friendlier, at least tax-wise. It also has the country’s largest port (one that used to be in New York, bristling Manhattan’s shoreline with piers and wharves, making look like a giant paramecium) and is a massive warehousing and freight forwarding hub. In fact Amazon already has a bunch of facilities there (perhaps including its own little port on Arthur Kill). I believe there are also many more places to build on the New Jersey side. (The photo above, shot on approach to Newark Airport, looks at New York across some of those build-able areas.)

And maybe that’s the plan anyway, without the fanfare.

As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro‘s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Which is massive. There’s a nice summary in The Guardian here.) This helps me appreciate the power of urban planning, and how thoughtful and steel-boned opposition to some of it can be fully useful. One example of that is Jane Jacobs’ thwarting of Moses’ plan to run a freeway through Greeenwich Village. He had earlier done the same through The Bronx, with the Cross Bronx Expressway. While that road today is an essential stretch of the northeast transport corridor, at the time it was fully destructive to urban life in that part of the city—and in many ways still is.

So I try to see both sides of an issue such as this. What’s constructive and what’s destructive in urban planning are always hard to pull apart.

For an example close to home, I often wonder if it’s good that Fort Lee is now almost nothing but high-rises? This is the town my grandfather helped build (he was the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood), where my father grew up climbing the Palisades for fun, and where he later put his skills to work as cable rigger, helping build the George Washington Bridge. The Victorian house Grandpa built for his family on Hoyt Avenue, and where my family lived when I was born, stood about as close to a giant new glass box called The Modern as I am from the kitchen in the apartment I’m writing this, a few blocks away from The Bridge on the other side of the Hudson. It’s paved now, by a road called Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. Remember Bridgegate? That happened right where our family home stood, in a pleasant neighborhood of which nothing remains.

Was the disappearance of that ‘hood a bad thing? Not by now, long after the neighborhood was erased and nearly everyone who lived has died or has long since moved on. Thousands more live there now than ever did when it was a grid of nice homes on quiet, tree-lined streets.

All urban developments are omelettes made of broken eggs. If you’re an egg, you’ve got reason to complain. If you’re a cook, you’d better make a damn fine omelette.


Emanuele Orazio Fenzi, better known as Francesco Franceschi (1843-1924), was an Italian horticulturist responsible for vastly increasing the botanical variety of Santa Barbara (introducing more than 900 species). He was also for awhile the primary landowner on the Riviera, a loaf-shaped hill overlooking the city’s downtown. Most of that hill is now covered with houses, but a large part that isn’t is what remains of the Franceschi estate: 18 acres called Franceschi Park, featuring a crumbling mansion and the bust above, carved into the top of a boulder on the property.

The city doesn’t have much to say about Franceschi, with a website devoted to the park that goes one paragraph deep. This makes sense, because the state of neglect in the park is extreme. I won’t go into details, because they’re well presented all these stories:

Wikipedia, at the top link above, goes deep too. So does this 2002 Pacific Horticulture story, which suggests with this photo—


—that the bust above isn’t a bad likeness.

But that boulder and Franceschi’s head are going to be shards on the road soon if the city, or somebody, doesn’t save it. Simply put, the ground under it is giving way. Take a look. Here’s the bust, on its boulder, a few feet above the ground that has fallen down to Mission Ridge Road below:


And here you can see the failing slope, and the rubble that has fallen from within it onto the road:


I shot that a couple days ago, in a break between this winter’s record breaking rainstorms. And here’s a closer look at the slo-mo landslide happening immediately below the sculpture:

fail3Saving Franceschi’s bust is surely an easier job than saving his house. What I’m hoping here is that publishing this blog post will stir up some interest.

doc036cThe NYTimes says the Mandarins of language are demoting the Internet to a common noun. It is to be just “internet” from now on. Reasons:

Thomas Kent, The A.P.’s standards editor, said the change mirrored the way the word was used in dictionaries, newspapers, tech publications and everyday life.

In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity or the ‘telephone,’ ” he said. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new. But at one point, I’ve heard, ‘phonograph’ was capitalized.”

But we never called electricity “the Electricity.” And “the telephone” referred to a single thing of which there billions of individual examples.

What was it about “the Internet” that made us want to capitalize it in the first place? Is usage alone reason enough to stop respecting that?

Some of my tech friends say the “Internet” we’ve had for all these years is just one prototype: the first and best-known of many other possible ones.

All due respect, but: bah.

There is only one Internet just like there is only one Universe. There are other examples of neither.

Formalizing the lower-case “internet,” for whatever reason, dismisses what’s transcendent and singular about the Internet we have: a whole that is more, and other, than a sum of parts.

I know it looks like the Net is devolving into many separate systems, isolated and silo’d to some degree. We see that with messaging, for example. Hundreds of different ones, most of them incompatible, on purpose. We have specialized mobile systems that provide variously open vs. sphinctered access (such as T-Mobile’s “binge” allowance for some content sources but not others), zero-rated not-quite-internets (such as Facebook’s Free Basics) and countries such as China, where many domains and uses are locked out.

Some questions…

Would we enjoy a common network by any name today if the Internet had been lower-case from the start?

Would makers or operators of any of the parts that comprise the Internet’s whole feel any fealty to what at least ought to be the common properties of that whole? Or would they have made sure that their parts only got along, at most, with partners’ parts? Would the first considerations by those operators not have been billing and tariffs agreed to by national regulators?

Hell, would the four of us have written The Cluetrain Manifesto? Would David Weinberger and I have written World of Ends or New Clues if the Internet had lacked upper-case qualities?

Would the world experience absent distance and cost across a The Giant Zero in its midst were it not for the Internet’s founding design, which left out billing proprietary routing on purpose?

Would we have anything resembling the Internet of today if designing and building it had been left up to phone and cable companies? Or to governments (even respecting the roles government activities did play in creating the Net we do have)?

I think the answer to all of those would be no.

In The Compuserve of Things, Phil Windley begins, “On the Net today we face a choice between freedom and captivity, independence and dependence. How we build the Internet of Things has far-reaching consequences for the humans who will use—or be used by—it. Will we push forward, connecting things using forests of silos that are reminiscent the online services of the 1980’s, or will we learn the lessons of the Internet and build a true Internet of Things?”

Would he, or anybody, ask such questions, or aspire to such purposes, were it not for the respect many of us pay to the upper-cased-ness of “the Internet?”

How does demoting Internet from proper to common noun not risk (or perhaps even assure) its continued devolution to a collection of closed and isolated parts that lack properties (e.g. openness and commonality) possessed only by the whole?

I don’t know. But I think these kinds of questions are important to ask, now that the keepers of usage standards have demoted what the Net’s creators made — and ignore why they made it.

If you care at all about this, please dig‘s Locking the Web open: a Call for a Distributed Web, Brewster Kahle’s post by the same title, covering more ground, and the Decentralized Web Summit, taking place on June 8-9. (I’ll be there in spirit. Alas, I have other commitments on the East Coast.)

reader-publisher-advertiser-safeadsTake a look at any ad, for anything, online.

Do you know whether or not it’s meant for you personally — meaning that you’ve been tracked somehow, and that tracking has been used to aim the ad at you? Chances are you don’t, and that’s a problem.

Sometimes the tracking is obvious, especially with retargeted ads. (Those are the shoes or hats or fishing poles that follow you to sites B, C and D after you looked at something like them at site A.) But most of the time it’s not.

Being followed around the Web is not among the things most of us want when we visit a website. Nor is it what we expect from most advertising.

Yet much of today’s advertising online comes with privacy-invading tracking files that slows page loads, drives up data use on our mobile devices and sometimes carries a bonus payload of malware.

So we block ads — in droves so large that ad blocking now comprises the largest boycott of anything in human history.

Reduced to a hashtag, what we say with our ad blockers is #NoAds. But even AdBlock Plus (the top ad blocker and the most popular* add-on overall), whitelists what its community calls “acceptable ads” by default.

So there is some market acceptance, if not demand, for some advertising. Specifically, Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto whitelists ads that:

  1. are not annoying.
  2. do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
  3. are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. are effective without shouting at us.
  5. are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Those are all fine, but none of them yet draws a line between what you, or anybody, knows is safe, and what isn’t.

In Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, I draw that line between ads aimed at populations and ads aimed at you (because you’re being tracked). Here’s one way of illustrating the difference:


As Don Marti puts it in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, #SafeAds carry a signal that personally targeted ads do not. For one thing, they don’t carry the burden of requiring that every ad perform in some way, preferably with an action by you. He explains,

Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explained the signaling logic behind advertising in a 1984 paper.

When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered. In order for advertising to be an effective signal, high-quality firms must be able to recover advertising costs while low-quality firms cannot.

Kevin Simler writes, in Ads Don’t Work that Way,

Knowing (or sensing) how much money a company has thrown down for an ad campaign helps consumers distinguish between big, stable companies and smaller, struggling ones, or between products with a lot of internal support (from their parent companies) and products without such support. And this, in turn, gives the consumer confidence that the product is likely to be around for a while and to be well-supported. This is critical for complex products like software, electronics, and cars, which require ongoing support and maintenance, as well as for anything that requires a big ecosystem (e.g. Xbox).

In my wheat & chaff post, I said,

Let’s fix the problem ourselves, by working with the browser and ad and tracking blockers to create simple means for labeling the wheat and restricting our advertising diet to it.

So this is my concrete suggestion: label every ad not aimed by tracking with the hashtag “#SafeAd.”

It shouldn’t be hard. The adtech industry has AdChoices, a complicated program that supposedly puts you “in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Credit where due: at least it shows that advertisers are willing to label their ads. A #SafeAd hashtag (and/or some simple code that speaks to ad and tracking blockers) would do the same thing, with less overhead, with a nice clear signal that users can appreciate.

#SafeAds is the only trail I know beyond the pure-prophylaxis #NoAds signal that ad blocking sends to publishers and advertisers today. So let’s blaze it.

* That’s for Firefox. I can’t find an equivalent list for other browsers. Help with that is welcome.


One of the things that fascinates me about Prague are the skewers atop the spires of its many iconic buildings, each of which pierces a shiny ball. It’s a great look.

I am sure there’s a reason for those things, other than the look itself.

I am also sure there is a word for the ball. The skewer too.

I know it’s not spire, because that labels any conical or tapered point on the roof of a building. Prague is said to be the city of a hundred, or a thousand, spires. Most of those have these balls too, and I’ve become obsessed, while I’m here, with finding out what the hell they’re called.

I’m sure more than a few people out there on the lazyweb know. So tell me.

Thank you.