Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Anatomy of a Click

As part of my morning review of news headlines, I like to read Charles Arthur’s excellent Overspill link roundup. In today’s edition, he linked to a fascinating-looking piece by James Ball in the Huffington Post called “The Anatomy of a Click” about programmatic advertising and all of the automated bidding that happens when you click. So I did.

I was greeted first by the burdensome opt-in advertising screen for Oath, the Huffington Post’s parent company. GDPR may require website owners to give visitors choices, but this is just egregious, and shows the scale of Oath’s operation. They don’t make it easy to simply opt-out of all targeting and tracking. This is why ad blockers are popular.

Then I noticed the URL, which now contained all sorts of referral information and tracking data.

The article itself is part of a section called “Digital Life”, which is sponsored by Microsoft — a company that runs a targeted programmatic advertising platform and allows Oath ads on its platforms, including in Windows. That what the people who make the big money call “synergy”, or “synchronicity”, or whatever.

If you look in your Web Inspector, you’ll notice that the article phones home to several trackers and contains loads of programmatic advertising. That makes it especially rich when you read to the bottom of what is generally a well-written explanation of how the market works:

The whole situation is summarised by data protection expert and privacy advocate Johnny Ryan.

“Every single time a person loads a page on a website that uses ‘programmatic’ advertising, information about what they are reading and the device they use is broadcast to a large number of adtech companies, who then do God knows what with it,” he explains.


“In GDPR terms, this “programmatic advertising” is a vast and ongoing data breach, and it means that everyone involved can be subject to an investigation by Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, and can be taken to court by Internet users.”

I’m not completely stupid; I understand why many websites — including this one — have analytics software and ads. But it is worth pointing out, and not solely to toot my own horn, that there is a vast difference between a “dumb” ad plus one or two analytics packages that do their best to anonymize traffic and respect Do Not Track, compared to the monstrosities created by companies like Oath and the Huffington Post that collect and distribute your browsing history on behalf of dozens of third parties in ways that are beyond your control.

You may, quite rightly, point out that the Huffington Post is not the pinnacle of journalism. But I would argue that the standards of the web should not be so low that we ought to tolerate privacy-invasive behaviour from anyone. And, for what it’s worth, practitioners of great journalism like the Washington Post and the Financial Times also have an egregious record when it comes to online tracking. It is their responsibility to give readers the best possible information, written as well as they can, and publish it on the safest and most reader-friendly platform available.