This is a follow-up to my recent article Safari link tracking can no longer be disabled. I'm quite surprised that my complaining about a hidden preference in Safari has generated so much discussion on the internet. I'm also quite pleased, because I think it's important to draw attention to the privacy implications of the HTML anchor ping attribute and have a public debate about it. I've heard so many people say that they weren't even aware that anchor ping existed until they saw my article, so I'm glad to raise awareness.
The main argument that has been offered in favor of anchor ping is that it's preferable to the alternative forms of tracking links, such as server-side redirects or client-side clickjacking. My response to this argument is that anchor ping not preferable for reasons to be explained below, and moreover, the entire argument is a fallacy, a false dilemma. Let me start with the second point. Anchor ping has not replaced redirects and clickjacking. We still have these forms of tracking! For example, notice how Apple News links have begun to permeate the web. And just a few months ago I wrote about how Google Search hijacks links in the search results when you press down your mouse on the links.
The marketing of the anchor ping feature by the major browser vendors turned out to be a bait and switch. The following is what WHATWG has to say about it.
However, the ping attribute provides these advantages to the user over those alternatives:
- It allows the user to see the final target URL unobscured.
- It allows the UA to inform the user about the out-of-band notifications.
- It allows the user to disable the notifications without losing the underlying link functionality.
- It allows the UA to optimize the use of available network bandwidth so that the target page loads faster.
Thus, while it is possible to track users without this feature, authors are encouraged to use the ping attribute so that the user agent can make the user experience more transparent."
Anchor ping was supposed to be transparent as in easily perceived by the user. Instead, anchor ping has become "transparent" as in invisible to the user. The browsers never informed the user about the ping notifications. And now browsers such as Safari and Chrome are removing the ability of the user to disable the notifications. As far as privacy is concerned, this is not "a wash" compared to previous tracking methods. It's a cover-up.
apple.news) rather than the final source.
Another stated benefit of anchor ping is that the target page loads faster. But is making tracking more performant a goal for users, or a goal for advertisers? Why should tracking be rewarded with better performance instead of punished with worse performance? What's the incentive for protecting user privacy, the incentive for sites to not track clicks? It's known that longer load times cause sites to lose readers, but why shouldn't this fact be used to as an incentive to avoid tracking rather than as a barrier to easier tracking? It seems to me that anchor ping is giving advertisers everything they want and users nothing they want. If there's to be tracking, shouldn't the tracking be obvious to the user? Perhaps even obnoxiously obvious? It's always claimed that users don't care about privacy, but we've seen clearly that users simply don't know about anchor ping. How can they decide whether to care when they don't even know?
I'd like to see browsers do even more to protect users, instead of simply shrugging in defeat and focusing all of their efforts on optimizing for speed. I don't accept the argument that browsers shouldn't bother to protect the privacy of users, because advertisers will just find a technical bypass for every browser protection. By that logic, why bother locking the doors of your home, because criminals can break in anyway? I say make it harder for the violators, and make violations obvious to everyone.