Last week I went on about APIs. This week we move on.

When working with APIs, the first hurdle that almost everyone trips up on, is OAuth. Everything after that is easy.

So what is OAuth, and why does it have to stand in the way between us and API bliss?


Let’s start with a more fundamental question. What is authentication?

Who are you?

Let’s demonstrate authentication using typical Cryptographic Role-playing:

Alice has to prove to Bob that she is indeed Alice, before Bob starts sharing things with Alice that he might not want to, or be allowed to, share with anyone else. Alice and Bob thus enter into private conversation with each other.

Authentication is so deeply ingrained in our everyday lives, that we have completely forgotten about its existence. Another reason we don’t think about it is that our minds are so good at authenticating people visually, that we don’t even know that we do it all the time.

Think about it. How much thought do you put into recognising your work colleagues each morning before you start talking about sensitive project information with them?

Who’s given you the right?

Why is Authentication not enough? What is Authorisation?

Charlie has to prove to Bob that Alice has given him permission to speak to Bob about things that only Alice and Bob normally speak about. Charlie is thus included in the private conversation between Alice and Bob.

With the rise of Social Networks, and indeed Social Network APIs, the need for an authorised third party arose. Why?

Social Networks are all about sharing stuff. Now, the first layer of sharing is within the Social Network itself, with other members of your Social graph. However, that’s not where the sharing stops.

The real magic behind Social Sharing is that the things you share can travel with you, to other websites and Social Networks. It’s also about things you do outside of your Social Network, to make their way back into your Social graph.

It’s about your Instagram photos making their way to your Facebook friends, and it’s about listening to new music your friends discovered in Spotify.

Authorisation is necessary – to share your information shared on one social network with another entity, and to specify exactly which information to share with that entity.


This is where OAuth comes into play.

The OAuth protocol was first drafted by Twitter, with Google joining them soon after. After that, it was handed over to the IETF for proper standardisation.

OAuth allows websites to let a user log into their social networks and grant the website certain permissions, without having access to the user’s Username and Password.

How does this happen?

  1. The website redirects the user to a special Authentication and Authorisation URL, hosted by the Social Network. It sends a few parameters along as part of the URL, which tells the Social Network exactly which data they want to access
  2. The user logs into their social network (if they’re not already logged in)
  3. The user gets shown which of their data the website will be able to access, and agrees to it, or denies the access
  4. If the user agreed in step 3, they get redirected to the website, with a random number (called an Access Token)as part of the URL. The website then presents the Access Token to the Social Network to get access to the data they want

The Access Token is the proof the Social Network (Bob) requires to know that the user (Alice) has given the website (Charlie) permission to access her data.

So, while OAuth might not always be very simple the first time you use it (especially not OAuth 1.0), it provides a very powerful service, which we tend to take for granted. It might not be perfect, in the same way that no Security is perfect, but it gets the job done.

Considering all of this, it’s actually very simple, and very effective.

Channel 4 tries to GetGlue some social media stickiness

We've said so before: social media and old school TV go together rather nicely. Not surprising then that Channel 4 has done a deal with GetGlue, a Social Check-in service that allows you to check-in to TV shows and interact with other users who have done the same. The partnership starts with the launch of a new drama series called Beaver Falls.

"Once the weekly drama debuts on E4 on 27 July people can check-in to the show via the web, and Android, Apple and Blackberry devices. For each episode that they check-in for they will earn an exclusive Beaver Falls sticker."

Our opinion? Much ado about not so much. We don't think checkins are the killer mechanic to go with TV watching. Here's a little secret. We are launching a sexy TV social media app very soon and if you have been following this newsletter you might be able to guess what service it will be based on. More details soon.


Google + for business

Google + has been touted as perfect for business. No wonder then that when Google announced that companies could register their interest for early access to business profiles, the Google Docs spreadsheet created for this purpose filled up in a matter of hours.

With so much interest in the new platform, one would expect Klout and PeerIndex to be gagging for the Google + API. Google+ will be far more public than Facebook. This and the fact that following is asymetrical like Twitter makes Google+ a far better candidate for measuring influence than Facebook we think. And yes: Klout this week announced in a blog post exactly that. Noting that it took Facebook 2 years and Twitter 3 years to reach 10 million users, a milestone Google passed in a week, they had some other interesting comments:

"Our internal testing of Google+ has already demonstrated some exciting potential. Simple post-by-post privacy is undoubtedly a reason why so many feel more comfortable with who can access their content. We’ve also noticed people are sharing more, perhaps due to a more intuitive interface."

Don't give me an ad, give me something fun or useful

That's exactly what these 2 brands are doing. Toyota has created an app called Backseat Driver. It's a game that connects to the car's GPS and lets your kids interact with the ride.

In the category more-fun-than-useful comes this rather silly campaign-slash-app from Pedigree New Zealand. To support their Adopt a Dog program, the created an app called Doggelganger, which matches a homeless dog to your profile picture. 


And if you have to give me an ad, make it social

This week it was announced that Facebook ads are becoming more and more expensive. More interestingly, the same report also put a figure to the success of the Sponsored Stories ad format, which allows brands to lift content from their Wall and turn that into a display ad. Facebook themselves have claimed that these ads perform on average twice as well; this week's data claim it can reduce the Cost Per Acquisition by 32%. Importantly, it is alo a way for Page owner to escape the dreaded blackhole which your updates find so hard to escape.

As VP of Advertising David Fischer said: 

"The key reasons it works is that it is engaging, it is social, and it is reflective of what brings people to Facebook overall, which is to share and connect"

Guerilla corporate social responsibility

At RAAK we were keen observers of the Egyptian uprising in January. It became clear that the Egyptian youth had an extremely active network of bloggers, activists and concerned citizens on Twitter. In fact, one of the most effective users of Twitter we have seen is Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey, who has, with his witty, informed and incisive punditry and fearless reporting, redefined activist journalism. Now Mahmoud Salem, as he is actually known, has started a new initiative called Tweetback.

“The idea is to start a fundraiser by using Twitter to give companies PR in exchange for supporting developmental projects. (…) It’s directed marketing, and the 20 people I’ve brought in represent many different segments of society, and so it gives these companies the chance to hit all the different segments, which is hard to find in any other medium.”


Social Media = Media

David Cameron the UK prime minster this week broadened the scope of an enquiry into the media and its relationship with the UK police and politicians after the hacking scandal.

"The inquiry should look not just at the press but other media organisations, including broadcasters and social media, if there is any evidence that they have been involved in criminal activities."

The way the sentence is framed seems to suggest a profound misunderstanding of the nature of social media. But hey, were glad it's been taken seriously. 

Wikipedia needs more women

Some intriguing (and slightly disappointing) stats on Wikipedia this week. A study has revealed that only 13% of their contributor base are female. And that the average age is mid-20s.

Creative Of The Week – Ivan Cash

Letter's, remember them? A lovely little project by artist/designer Ivan Cash caught our eye this week. While his other work is quite tongue-in-cheek and disruptive (check out his guerrila-style iPad-poster hacking project), Snail Mail My Email is just cute and endearing.

It's a project that celebrates the lost art of letter writing, so for a month you can submit an email to and Cash's team will lovingly turn your message into a hand-written letter.


Tech Insight The Week – What’s an API?

You know what an API is, right? I mean, it's easy – Twitter has one, Facebook has one, Google+ will soon have one. It's this thing – you shake it a bit, and data comes pouring out. Right? Wrong. For this weeks' tech insight post, we dissected the term "API" a bit, and dished it up with some wasabi.

You know what an API is, right? I mean, it’s easy – Twitter has one, Facebook has one, Google+ will soon have one. And you shake it a bit, and data comes pouring out. Right?

What is an API?

Everyone who thinks they know what an API is, normally thinks of a very specific type of API, namely a RESTful web API.

This usage of the word API has become mainstream with the rise of web mashup culture. In the software development industry, however, the term has existed for about as long as programming languages, with a much wider definition.

If you understand what the real meaning of the word API is, it becomes much easier to understand the underlying details of web API’s.

Application Programming Interface

API, as you may have guessed from the subtitle above, is short for Application Programming Interface.

In software development, the term Interface refers to a set of rules and conventions that has to be followed by two pieces of software that wants to communicate with each other. In other words, any piece of utility software that is meant to be incorporated in other pieces of software, implements an interface. This interface is then documented in (almost) human language, to tell software developers how to write software that can communicate with it.

And this is literally what software development is all about.

Every piece of software can be broken down a huge number times into smaller pieces of software, which can each be broken down into smaller pieces of software, etc. All these pieces communicate with each other and access each other’s hidden functionality by asking the right questions in exactly the right format – ie through Interfaces.


Mostly, software speaking to each other reside on the same computer. Often they are even packaged into the same piece of software.

At some point, though, someone realised that computers should be able to phone each other, like humans do, and networking was born.

And, of course, the need for Interfaces to be usable across networks, and the Internet, making it possible for pieces of software residing on different computers to speak to each other. Nice, eh?


Now, at first, these web API’s utilised various data protocols to speak to each other, of which XML-RPC and SOAP were probably the most widely used. These protocols always depended on quite a few suites of utility software to be installed on each side of the network connection, to facilitate the communication.

However, at some point some genius came up with the following idea: Why don’t pieces of software just publish their output as web pages, accessible by URL, like normal web pages? Bloody Brilliant!

And this, in simple terms, is what we call a RESTful API. An API that is accessed in exactly the same way web pages are.

Not all API’s can be RESTful

RESTful data representation is static. In other words, you ask for a piece of data, and you get sent a page with the data on it. The data will not change on the page while you’re looking at it. This means the data you can get through REST API’s always dates from before the API call was made.

This is perfectly fine for most API needs.

However, Twitter has an entire class of API’s which do not lend themselves to this kind of representation. They are the Streaming API’s.

The streaming API’s are future directed.

It is like opening a pipe to Twitter, through which, from now onwards, you will receive every Tweet you are supposed to receive as they arrive at Twitter, in real time. The data you get through these API’s always dates after you have made the API call.

Ok – that’s enough. That’s more than enough to keep you thinking for one week, and covers all of the social network API’s out there anyway.

Next week, we’ll have a look at OAuth. Or, if you really feel strong, go read the OAuth RFC!

Warp speed ahead

Google+ is the fastest social network to reach 10 million users and will probably reach 20 million this weekend. Some have stuck their neck out claiming it will be the fastest to get to the 100 million mark. Web services with more than 100 million registered users are a rarefied club:

  • Facebook 750 million
  • Twitter 200 million
  • Gmail 193.3 million
  • Skype 145 million
  • LinkedIn 100+ million

It's the end of the World as we Know it – and we feel fine?

Predictably pundits have fallen over each other to pick over News of the World's corpse and deliver their post mortems. In the one corner, the elitists who fear the arrival of everybody, led by Will Self. His lament about Shifting Tectonic Plates blamed the whole palaver on dumbing down caused by the internet and the lack of gatekeepers of taste:

"…anyone no matter how talentless can be famous – Warhol's prophecy – but that even those who have talents can be forced to abandon them if they're not fungible in the media marketplace."

And in the other corner, The Economist, which enthused in Bulletins from the future:

"And although the internet has proved hugely disruptive to journalists, for consumers—who now have a wider choice than ever of news sources and ways of accessing them—it has proved an almost unqualified blessing."

But perhaps the most insightful was Paul Mason, Newsnight editor. Mason argued that social media has emaciated the power of Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent on its head. This is a theory that claims that mass media in democracies are driven by profit; that through an advertising model they cater to elite interests and ignore the real public interest but still thrive.

On a side note, The Guardian has done an excellent visualisation of the Tweets around the News of The World Crisis using DataSift.


Crowdsourcing crisis information made easy

Ushahidi, the crisis mapping service, has launched an iPhone app that allows anyone to use and add information to maps on their phones. It even allows you to white-label your app. Excellent stuff.

Spotify's got Klout

Techcrunch reports that Spotify finally launched in the US with the help of influence tool Klout. Users with high scores got free access. Techcrunch was not impressed:

"Spotify is going to have to do a hell of a lot of marketing over the next few months. Though partnering with Klout is hardly a mainstream move, IMHO. Still, every little helps…"

We begged to differ.


Your phone vibrates and you've got cash

Paypal is getting in on the NFC action early. Perhaps spurred on by the success of Square (the service that turns iPhones into payment terminals), they have developed an NFC solution that allows phones to pay each other. Read more here.

Platform Plays

In his book What Would Google Do? Jeff Jarvis argues that in our new media world, a business should either be part of a network or platform, or strive to be one themselves.

One could argue that WordPress already is a type of platform, with a host of developers working on Themes and Plugins that sit on top of it. But they are trying to extend that further adding modern authentication and a new API.


Social job hunting with Adzuna

There's a sexy new job search engine in town. What makes it extra special is that it brings up vacancies in the companies of your Facebook Friends and LinkedIn contact.

Desperately seeking serendipity

Since social media often uses algorithms to suggest what content you should see and who you should follow, it's imperative that the code that does this is based on a sound understanding of human behaviour. In this thoughtful and wide ranging post by Ethan Zuckerman, he takes a careful look at all the issues and pitfalls. A long but fantastic read.

On that note: there is a new company on the block – Katango – that has put fine words into action and Robert Scoble describes what they have achieved as MIND BLOWING:

"It found my wife's elementary school friends in Facebook (she grew up in Tehran). For me it found most of the speakers I hired in the 1990s for our conferences (and I rarely talk with any of them)."


What's it like where you are?

This year's SXSW did not present any clear-cut winner like Foursquare or Twitter previously. But Robert Scoble did have a favourite. It was Localmind and it has just received $600,000 in funding.

What do they do? Localmind’s real-time, location-based platform sits on top of existing check-in services like Foursquare and Gowalla. It allows you to ask questions to users checked-in at any location or venue. Nice. Just a pity none of those location services have huge user adoption.

Twitter's Private Rants

So you have a crisis and lots of your customers are irate. You have to ask them for their details to help, but they don't want to send the information in public. So you ask them to follow you so they can DM you – Twitter parlance for a Private Message. Hardly ideal. Well Twitter has just changed their policy for Verified accounts. These accounts can now receive Private Messages from users that are not following them.

How to hack a job with Twitter

As genius as it is simple, two Dutch designers landed themselves a job by being creative with Twitter profile images.

How? They created 5 Twitter profiles, whose combined profile images spelled out the words 'Hire Us'. They then followed a bunch of creative directors with those 5 accounts – in quick succession – which meant the words 'Hire Us' were visible under New Followers.


Google+ Buzz

The Digirati have been buzzing all week about Google +. The consensus is, if nothing else, Google has shaken its reputation for not being able to build social products. The UX is slick, its joint video conferencing system (Hangouts) might be a killer app, and its Circles function allows you to group people easily, making some think it will be great for business use, and even a threat the LinkedIn.

So what do we think? Like Mark Zuckerburg we still think it's too early to say what it is for and to what extent it will be used. But we'd like to point you to some interesting observations by Jeff Jarvis and Robert Scoble, regarding the way Google+ deals with identity, reciprocal follows, links and why your mom is unlikely to join soon.

Facebook's comeback

When Google+ launched, Mark Zuckerberg tried to put a damper on proceedings: "Facebook would launch something awesome this week" he claimed. And it is'nt that bad. They launched a trio of related chat products: ad hoc group chat, a new chat design, and video calling powered by Skype. Invariably people sought to compare the Skype integration with Google+ video conferencing feature Hangouts. It is no contest.

A busy week at Twitter

Twitter's just announced a message rate of 200 million tweets per day. While this sounds huge, we're actually a bit disappointed. A bit more than a month ago, we made a projection based on twitter's growth data up to March. In our projection, Twitter should have been at 220 million tweets per day by now. This 10% deviation doesn't sound like a lot, but given that it's after only 4 months, it means they might be as much as 30% below our projected rate at the end of the year. (406 million tweets per day vs 284)

At the same time it looks like Twitter is gearing themselves up for their "promoted tweets" business model. They have just acquired social analytics company Backtype. This will give them the ability to provide businesses with proper analysis tools.

Earlier this week Google Realtime Search went offline. The next day it emerged that Google's subscription to the Twitter firehose had expired. Somehow we think this might have more to do with Twitter than with Google. As this post points out, the absence of Twitter is already having an impact on Search Rankings, and Google+ is far from ready to step into the breach.


iPad no iFad

Even though the machine is only 18 months old, iPad owners now have an astonishing 100,000 apps to choose from. The form factor of the iPad, bigger than a smartphone, but small enough to use standing up, is also creating a whole new category of use cases. Some professions – like doctors in hospitals – are flocking to it, and apps to support them are proliferating

Also this week, South Korea announced they aim to replace all textbooks with tablets by 2015.

The power of LinkedIn Today

It's not very often we report interesting news from LinkedIn HQ. But this week Techcrunch announced that LinkedIn has become their 2nd biggest source of referrals, after Facebook, but before Twitter. Incredibly, LinkedIn refferals are now 50 times what they were a year ago. Traffic from it increased 5 fold in May, and doubled again in June.

The reason for this is LinkedIn Today, the social news aggregator they launched a few months ago, which collates the most shared stories. Funnily enough, it's powered by news shared via Twitter. Which just goes to show how the right UX can make the obtuse Twitter come into its own.

Creative of the Week – Jean-Christophe Naour

We've talked before about the creative hacker potential of the Kinect. Jean-Christophe Naour, a French Interaction Designer who lives in Seoul, has just added another to the list.

He created the Kinect Graffiti, an application that tracks the motion behind the graffiti and visualizes the body, the drawing motion and the surrounding space. More info and pretty pictures in this video.


Google+ launches itself onto the turbulent social sea

This week Google launched its next step in its social play, Google +. We will reserve judgement for now, but what is intriguing is how serious Google is taking this project. Wired has a very good in-depth feature on it and the image that inspires it:

"The image was discovered by Google VP of product management Bradley Horowitz when he opened Google Image Search and typed “Emerald Sea” — which had just been chosen as the project code name. The first result, a depiction of an 1878 painting created by German immigrant artist Albert Bierstadt, so impressed Horowitz that he commissioned a pair of art students to copy it on the wall facing the fourth floor elevators. That way, the hundreds of workers contributing to Emerald Sea would draw inspiration as they headed to their computers to remake Google into a major social networking force. The massive wave symbolizes the ways Google views the increasingly prominent social aspect of the web — as a possible tsunami poised to engulf it, or a maverick surge that it will ride to glory."


Nowhere to hide…

The internet's collective intelligence is an incredible tool for sniffing out inauthenticity. The latest this week to suffer the ignominy: columnist Johann Hari.

In the past the internet was a place make up identities and facts were played with in a fast and loose fashion. The man that pretended to be Amina, the Syrian lesbian blogger, was outed by a concerted Twitter hunt lead by Andy Carvin. In Vancouver rioters were tagged by friends.

Of course if you are a nobody or if your actions don't goad the online denizens into action, you might get away with it. But the internet is a different wild west from what it used to be. The New York Times has a great article on the phenomenon.

..not even if you're Volkswagen

On a similar note, PR people at Volkswagen had their work cut out this week. Out of the blue, Greenpeace launched a full-frontal attack on the car brand, accusing them of lobbying against the increase of the greenhouse gas reductions target. How? By creating a film that smartly used VW's advertising iconography and by including a simple but effective Social Media sharing mechanic.

Interesting fact, flagged by COI director Nick Jones: the amount of people signing the petition is much higher than the number of people simply Liking. Currently the ratio is almost 3:1.


New social ad formats

In their never-ending attempt to adapt advertising to social media, Facebook is experimenting with allowing comments on Facebook ads. It allows brands to ask a question in the display ad, hoping to start an engaging discussion and get into people's Newsfeeds.

Also this week, LinkedIn introduced new ad formats, one of which uses that Facebook-style trick of showing relevant connections in the ad.

Foursquare starts to add value

Despite a growing user base and despite being valued at $600m this week, we still think Foursquare has their work cut out to become truly relevant. Anecdotal evidence tells us that the amount of check-ins at bigger events are roughly the same as last year.

Still, it seems that the location service is working hard at adding value to the check-in. Luxury hotel chain Ritz-Carlton is using the tips functionality to create a virtual 'concierge' service at some of its hotels.

And more striking: they're partnering up with American Express to give people cashback when they link both accounts and check-in at selected stores. Spend $75 at H&M, for example, and you'll get $10 back on your next statement.


Mobile Payment

PayPal announced this week they now have 100 million active users. More importantly, for the third time in 6 months, they amended their estimates of how much people will spend through mobile payments. They now think it'll be $3 billion for the year.

These are signs that the initial reticence of paying through your mobile phone is disappearing. Google research stated that 28% of people in the UK have used their phone to make a purchase. Still, only 17% of business have mobile-optimized websites.

What does digital first mean? Become a platform

The Guardian recently announced that from now on they will be driven by a digital first policy. What could this mean in practice though? In a thoughtful wide ranging article Jeff Jarvis made some suggestions, focusing on the principle that reporting remains journalists' highest calling:

"Going digital does not mean merely putting articles online before the presses roll, as then print still rules the process. No – digital first means the net must drive all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that when journalists know something, they are prepared to share it with their public. They may share what they know before their knowledge is complete so the public can help fill in blanks. In this way, digital first resets the journalistic relationship with the community, making the news organisation less a producer and more an open platform for the public to share what it knows."

Talking of reporting, sharing and crowdsourcing information. Is there a better tool for that than Twitter? Not that we have seen. So it makes complete sense that Twitter has launched a resource for journalists.


Content isn't king anymore

Making content is not a platform business. The Atlantic explains the inexorable rise of Netflix, a company that became a platform distributing the content of others. If you think about it, the more profitable companies in the past did much the same. See for example the telcos who did not produce, but carried 'conversations'.

In the article, The Atlantic makes the economic argument why making content is not where it's at. So where is it at then? Business Insider reckons it lies in curation.

Creative of the Week – Mike Bodge

According to his own bio, "Mike Bodge is an internet-minded human and entrepreneur located in New York". He operates an interesting blog called Delete Yourself, but it is his latest creation that really caught our eye: N Sky C.

Built as a microsite, N Sky C is automatically updated every 5 minutes with the average color of the sky above New York City. Complete with HTML color code. Really cool.


Tech Insight of the Week – Drive the HTML5 canvas without tears

This week a very nifty little framework popped out of our Twitterfeeds: Paper.js. It allows you to do very serious things on the HTML5 canvas in a very simple way. We test-drived it, and found that a couple of nice examples of what you could do with it spoke louder than words could ever hope to. Read More »

Earlier this year, the EU announced a new law, which will force websites to get a user’s explicit permission if they’re going to track the user by means of cookies.
(I’ll get in-depth about what exactly cookies are a bit later)
EU Cookie Law

Almost immediately, the entire tech industry was up in arms, explaining how this would kill any chance European tech startups have to succeed, compared to the rest of the world.

Few people got the point, really.

Since the directive has been announced, dust settled over the matter, and life went back to normal, to the frustration of online tech companies.

Now, finally, some case-in-point results came back from the first site to implement the cookie law requirements (see the message on top of the page). Ironically, it is the website of the Information Commissioner’s Office, responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law.

They are seeing a 90% drop in traffic due to the implementation of the cookie law.

Now, carefully sit back … don’t panic .. and consider this. Think it over carefully, and consider it’s meaning.
OK, now you may panic.

What are Cookies?

A cookie is:

  1. A small sweet cake, typically round, flat, and crisp.
  2. A small file stored on your computer when you visit a website, containing information that the website can retrieve when you visit the website again.

Why do websites need this? Let’s look at human behaviour.

Walking in a busy street in a big city, almost everyone you encounter is a stranger to you. You can’t provide them any personal experience, like greeting them by name, so they just walk along, treating you like you’re treating them – as complete strangers.

When you see someone you do know – the situation changes completely. You greet the person, possibly by name (depending on how well you know them), and if you’re both so inclined, you buy each other coffee, catch up, and this serendipitous meeting possibly leads to a joint business opportunity, friendship; some kind of deeper relationship for both of you.

How did this happen? Positive indentification. You received information fed into your brain by your eyes, enabling you to know who the person is, and unlocking a wealth of stored information about the other person.

Websites can not (at least not easily, yet) identify a person by looking at their face. So, they do this by storing a small piece of information on the user’s computer, that they can later easily identify, and link to other information they have stored on the user. Cookies allow you to not have to log into gmail every time you open it in your browser. They also allow you to not have to log into every page you’re visiting on a website. Without them, you would have to log in on Amazon after every link you click on.

Cookies as Currency

One amazing aspect of the modern tech world is the ability to give things away for free, and still have a valid business model.

How on Earth does this work?

Online companies deal in a different currency than money. They deal in users. Users can generate money by being advertised to, or by buying premium features at a later point, if they like the service enough that they don’t mind paying for it. Thus, investors give companies start up capital to build and improve their service based on the amount of users that are using the service. Thus, they “buy” users from tech startups with real money.

Now … how do we know how many users or visitors an online service or website has? That’s right. Cookies.

Thus, the ability to store cookies in online business is like a cash register in a shop. If you don’t have a cash register, people can browse the products you display, and they can love it. They can come back day after day to look at it and admire it, but they cannot buy it. Your shop will close soon, unless your landlord also operates without a cash register.

What’s the EU’s problem with cookies then?

Cookies are mostly used as explained above, but as with all technology, innovation lies in creative application.

Online advertisement networks have started using third-party cookies to innovate advertising. These are cookies set by websites, not to be used by the same website again, but by the advertising network, on different websites.

What are these used for?

Say you use the online property site After a short while of browsing different properties, Zoopla knows more or less what you’re looking for, and start showing you suggestions based on what you have looked at in the past. They can do this, because they can identify you by the cookie they have stored on your computer.

But, Zoopla also advertises on other websites. By allowing the advertising network to read their cookies, the advertisements on other websites knows who you are, and can advertise properties that Zoopla knows you are interested in. This turns useless ads into targeted, useful ads.

This behaviour have proved to have one of two effects on users:

  1. Profound amazement and joy, as if experiencing magic
  2. Uncertainty and fear, as if experiencing magic

This is determined by the extent to which the user understands the mechanism involved, combined with the user’s level of latent paranoia. Unfortunately, the paranoia aspect causes even well-informed people to also fear this innovation.

The EU sees it as their first obligation, as usual, to make everyone feel safe and secure, and secondly to strive towards economic health. In this case, the two are mutually exclusive, and the strive for economic health has to be sacrificed.

What to do now?

Well, if you are a tech startup or web publisher, it seems the options are few, with no easy options:

  1. Stop using cookies, and start charging for your service up front. Your service will have to be absolutely indispensable, though, or no-one will pay for it
  2. Start using cookies, prompt for users’ consent, and deal with the 90% traffic drop by charging 10 times more for you premium features. This is not guaranteed to work though, because the premium business model only starts working after a certain tipping point in user numbers, which you may never meet.
  3. Move your business out of the EU. This seems to be the most feasible option of the three. Feasible, but not easy.

If you are a user, be prepared to start paying for free services you’re completely taking for granted, and be prepared to go back to non-targeted, useless online ads, rather than ads that are actually tailored to suit your needs.

Online distopia? Probably, yes.