Of course, the early days of the web are best remembered for the exuberance of the dotcom boom, which kicked off with the Netscape IPO. The company, started by Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark, unleashed the world’s first successful commercial web browser, Navigator. Before too long, though, the behemoth Microsoft wanted in on the action, and soon after the browser wars were underway. Along the way, Netscape developed a technology that has come to define the web: the tracking cookie.
You might think of the cookie as an evil little technology that tracks you as you surf the web, like a homing device secretly installed on the underside of your cyberspaceship. But the original version was actually meant to protect user privacy, before it mutated into an extremely effective tracking and ad-serving device: the THIRD PARTY cookie.
The inventor of the benevolent cookie, Lou Montulli, was in a tough spot as the web began moving quickly towards an ad-based business model. If Netscape turned off third-party cookies, it would squash the momentum of the young web ecosystem – and it might torpedo his company.
Welcome to the data economy – and a long line of Silicon Valley rationalizations: “the Internet is a democratizing force...information wants to be free...free access to information is good for the world...” It’s a very utopian, very Whole Earth way of thinking.
This all sounds lovely, but with real cash (or stock options) on the table, there’s a choice to be made: morality or money. In Silicon Valley, the “solution” is often to engineer your way out of the dilemma. That was Lou Montulli’s approach. So he developed a way for people to turn off third party cookies on Navigator, and to this day he’s at peace with that decision.
Yet Montulli no longer works for an ad-supported business. And he’ll be the first to tell you that the problems of the data economy are among the most pressing issues we face today.
Throughout our series on the origins of power in Silicon Valley, we’ve been trying to unpack the tension between the Valley’s idealism and its engine of wealth creation. People in the Valley want to build a better world and make a lot of money. Sometimes these motivations align and sometimes they’re in conflict. Our challenge now is to discern which motivation dominates – and who wins or loses as a result.
Fred Turner, Kevin Kelly, Lou Montulli, Rosanne Siino, Tim Wu