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Paying the Privacy Tax

Dispatches from Editor-in-Chief Julia Angwin
This Week
Hello, friends,
As you probably already know, The Markup takes our readers’ privacy seriously. We worked hard to find a newsletter provider willing to build custom features that would allow us to not track our readers. And we built a website that doesn’t expose readers to tracking technology (and also happens to be super speedy).
We are constantly paying what we call a “privacy tax”—in other words, spending time and money building and customizing tools that would be off-the-shelf for other websites. We usually can’t use the premade tools because they contain tracking technology that vendors generally won’t remove. (Although we would love recommendations for privacy-friendly tools. If you know some good ones, please send them our way!)
As we approach the end of the year, I thought it would be interesting to quantify how much we have paid in privacy tax in 2020. I interviewed our engineers—Dan Phiffer and Simon Fondrie-Teitler—as well as our designer, Sam Morris, to find out how much time they spent building custom tools this year. (Spoiler alert: quite a bit.) 
Since we started publishing in February, here’s what we have built and why:

A Video Player. Most websites just load videos onto YouTube and use YouTube’s easy embed tool to place it on their website. But we can’t do that because YouTube sets a cookie if you use its normal embed, and when we tried its “privacy-enhanced” embed, it placed an identifier on the user’s machine. So we had to build our own video player. 
“This was probably the hardest of our tools because understanding video formats is a huge pain,” Simon said. Eventually we decided to use Amazon’s service to transcode videos into formats and resolutions suitable for the web. Dan, Sam, and Simon worked together to build a command line tool for uploading and processing videos—in other words, it is decidedly not easy for us to upload videos. But, as Dan said, “we’ve made the down payment, and now it’s something that we can improve on.”
Total hours spent building and designing: six weeks, or 240 hours. Using a rate of $75 an hour (engineers are expensive!) that would be $18,000.
Estimated Privacy Tax: $18,000

A Donation Platform. Most websites use donation platforms that contain third-party tracking. “I spent a couple weeks vetting various donation providers, and none of them fit our needs and allowed disabling of tracking,” Simon said. 
So once again our team decided to do it themselves. First we built a system to scrub cookies set by Stripe, our payment processing system. By default, Stripe sets a cookie on anyone who visits the “donate” page. So we added a cookie scrubber that deletes it each time someone visited. However, once you click to donate, Stripe still sets a cookie, which is unfortunately unavoidable.
Then we had to add fraud detection techniques and accessibility for people using screen readers. 
Total hours spent building and designing: six weeks, or 240 hours.
Estimated Privacy Tax: $18,000

Our video player, donation platform, and Twitter embed.
Our video player, donation platform, and Twitter embed.

Event RSVP system. Most websites use Eventbrite or other commercial systems to track RSVPs to events. But those systems track users. This time, Simon decided to skip the landscape tour of vendors, which requires reaching out to a salesperson who doesn’t know anything about the tracking technology and then getting that person to find an engineer he could talk to.
“At this point I realized it was easier to just build this out than to talk to everyone about their tools,” he said. “It’s more enjoyable for me, and it saves time.”
It took a week or two to build, as Simon put it, a “stupid version” and another two weeks to pretty it up with features like add-to-calendar options and automatic text and email event notifications. 
Total hours: four weeks, or 160 hours.
Estimated Privacy Tax: $12,000

Twitter Embeds. Sometimes we want to embed a tweet into a news story. But Twitter’s own tools for doing so contain tracking technology—and even though you can turn it off, it still loads images that are hosted by Twitter, which as Sam said, “is a light version of tracking.”
Luckily, before joining The Markup, Dan wrote a custom Twitter embed system to display tweets using the Twitter API and cache a local copy of the images. So all we had to build was a static template to load the tweets into.
“That went fast because I had already built it before,” Dan said. However, it’s likely to be more expensive in the long run, because every time Twitter changes, we will have to update it. Currently we are hoping they will change their API to include the labels that they append to tweets by public officials that are flagged for false or misleading content.
Total hours: one week, or 40 hours.
Estimated Privacy Tax: $3,000

Feedback Forms. Back in July, when we asked all you lovely newsletter readers to tell us a little bit about yourselves, we had to build a form for you to do that. 
Most websites use Google Forms, but Google Forms sets a cookie that tracks users. So we spent about a week building a homegrown version.
Total hours: one week, or 40 hours.
Estimated Privacy Tax: $3,000

Analytics. Most websites use Google Analytics to track visitors, but then Google tracks those visitors, too. So we decided to go with a system, Motomo, that doesn’t set cookies on users. And then we went the extra mile of stripping out the IP addresses of visitors, since IP addresses can be quite revealing of your location.
In the meantime, we are working on building our own analytics software that would be privacy-protecting. This is an ambitious effort that could easily take up a good portion of our engineering time in 2021.
But for now, the time spent on stripping IP addresses has been relatively low.
Total hours: four days, or 32 hours.
Estimated Privacy Tax: $2,400 

A/B Testing. A/B testing is when websites show different users different versions of the same content to test which is more effective. We don’t use A/B testing on our news content, but we wanted to know which fund-raising language is most effective.
Often A/B testing tools try to pull in as many factors as possible—how many stories you’ve read before you see the donation language, how many times you have been exposed to the same donation message, etc. But we don’t want to track you; we just want to track the message.
So we built a simple redirect tool that sends a slightly different URL to the donate page when you click on it, depending on which message you just read. 
Total hours: one day, or 8 hours.
Estimated Privacy Tax: $600

So, in total, we spent about $57,000 on privacy-protecting engineering efforts in 2020. That is a rough guess because we didn’t log our hours at the time, and it is definitely an understatement, because it doesn’t count the amount of time we spend thinking and talking about the privacy implications of everything we do.
It’s a lot of work, but we think it’s worth it—not just to protect our readers but also to show other websites that it can be done. We believe that our mission is not only to expose problems but also to find solutions—by building the world we want to live in, one tool at a time. 
If you support The Markup’s dedication to building privacy-protecting tools, we hope you will consider giving before the end of the year at themarkup.org/donate.
As always, thanks for reading!

Best,
Julia Angwin
Editor-in-Chief
The Markup


 
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