Install Privacy Badger. It’s a plug-in from the EFF that blocks the nasty stuff that web site owners silently insert into your browser – tracking code, cookies and code from third-parties. It works in Firefox and Chrome (but only on a computer, not on your mobile). Now enjoy the genuinely freaky experience of wandering the web unrecognised. Not anonymous, just not known. Like a character in a William Gibson novel who’s had the implant ripped out. This is what it’s like not to be tracked (disclaimer: this only works for web sites. Your government is still tracking you).
The immediate effect is more friction. Gone: the convenience of breezing around the web like you’re a VIP. Barriers pop up everywhere. But, you’ll realise, the experience of showing up at one of your regular web sites and seeing that bloody cookies warning again and being asked to log in from scratch again is, seriously, charming. You’re logging in again because the web site you’re visiting, which is your absolute favourite, has no idea who you are. Friction is good.
Likewise, seeing the little Privacy Badger icon light up, telling you that 10, 20, 30 (sometimes 40 or 50) tracking elements on the page have been blocked, is the simplest possible reminder of the sheer density of the thicket of tracking code you’re entangled in now.
And the fact that some pages won’t display at all, or are just broken, because Privacy Badger won’t allow them to load code from another domain, is also – seriously – sort of bracing. As you go through the list of blocked elements looking for the one that’s stopping the page from displaying, you’ll learn more about how third-party code makes the modern web work. Consciousness raised.
Incidentally, it’s going to take you a while to notice, but you’re not seeing the usual chaff of Facebook, Twitter and Google gadgets either. They’re blocked.
Is this a bit paranoid? A bit weird? Yes. But it’s also profoundly sane. Blocking all this stuff, this invasive cruft, this miserable, intrusive web junk is a good thing not because it makes it harder for big media to make a living. It’s a good thing because it switches things around and puts you back in charge. It’s now your decision whether you activate all those trackers again. If you’re feeling big about it – magnanimous – you can switch Privacy Badger off all together for sites you trust. But that’s a decision you made, not a default behaviour (I’m a grown-up and I want great sites to survive. I’ve done this for lots of sites).
Canny web site owners are responding to users who block their tracking code by popping messages saying things like: “we notice you’re running an ad blocker. Would you be a nice person and switch it off?” Some won’t allow you in at all if you’re running an ad blocker. And this is cool. It’s the right way round. It makes your contract with the publisher explicit. Everything’s in the open (and Privacy Badger will still show you a list of tracking code, even for sites you’re not blocking, so you’re in the know). There are also legit ways for publishers to stop Privacy Badger blocking their sites.
- Here’s the list of tracking elements blocked by Privacy Badger at the The Economist. 29 items.