1.1 Cookies are never free (Intro)

Just Digital Part 1: Big Issues in Small Bytes 1.1 Cookies are never free (Intro)


The world is becoming more and more digital.

Digital technologies are used in everything from healthcare and education, to communication and banking. Everything from your doorbell to dishwasher can be connected to an app. Going online is a daily (for some – constant!) experience.

This shift to the digital brings with it many good things. We can better keep in touch, communicate across language-barriers, learn and create with people around the world.

Our digital lives also come with big challenges.

Technology companies and governments harvest enormous amounts of information about us. Imperfect technologies are used in policing, border management, and in financial decision making. Online life can also be really unsafe for a lot of people, especially marginalized groups who experience hate speech and threats.

In this session you will learn about how our online lives work, what kind of data trail you leave behind, and what corporations and governments do with that data. Importantly, we’ll also look at steps everyone can take to be savvy web users and protect yourself in our digitalized world.

Are you ready to dig and find out what it really means when you accept all cookies? Great! Let’s go.


Digitalization, Data, Algorithms, Privacy, Big Tech


After this session you will be able to:

  • Understand digitalization and some of the ways it impacts your life.
  • Describe what kind of data Big Tech collects and how it is used.
  • Take steps to protect your data online.

Key Terms


In this course, we talk about digitalization as the increasing use of digital technologies across all areas of life. This includes in schools and at the doctor’s office, in communication, policing and banking, even in matters of war and peace.

Digitalization is why it is almost necessary for billions of people to have a little pocket computer with them at all times.

Make sure you don’t confuse digitization with digitalization. Digitization is simply converting information into a format that can be used by computers. Think of scanning old photographs to send by email. Digitalization includes this, but is so much more. It is the creation of entire digital ecosystems that shape how we communicate, learn, love, and run the world.

Recap: Digitalization is the integration of digital technologies in all areas of society.

Example: By 2026, just 30 years after the launch of Amazon and Ebay, nearly 1 out of 4 retail purchases will be made online. (Source: Forbes Advisor. Forbes is an American business magazine now owned by a Hong Kong-based investment group. )


Data fuels digitalization. Big Tech (more about that in a moment) collects enormous amounts of data about every one of their users with the goal of making more money. Governments and related agencies also collect data for administrative purposes, law enforcement, and in crisis management, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data is just a fact or statistic. It can be anything from your license plate number, how many people voted in a recent election, or how much rain fell yesterday. Data pieced together makes information. And information can be used to make decisions.

Your online data includes visible things, like photos and social media posts. It also includes behind the scenes data, like your location, web browsing habits, and even how long you pause to look at a social media post.

This data is sold to third-parties to serve you targeted ads, filter the content you find online, and influence consumer and political behaviour. Governments have also used data for surveillance, restricting free speech, and interfering in foreign elections.

Recap: Data is facts and statistics harvested online that can be used to identify patterns and create profiles for use by Big Tech and governments.

Example: Threads, the new social media app from Meta (Facebook’s parent company) collects data relating to user’s health and fitness, purchases, financial info, location, search and browsing history and more. (Source: Apple App Store. Apple is an US-founded, multinational technology company and included in the companies that make up Big Tech – see below.)


An algorithm is simply a procedure used to solve a problem. Recipes, getting ready for school in the morning, changing a flat tire on your bike . . . these are all algorithms! For digital technologies, algorithms are the steps computers take to execute a task – over and over and over again.

Algorithms are used for nearly everything (including artificial intelligence, but we’ll talk about that later). They dictate what content you see online, whether your bank loan gets approved, and if your job application goes to the recruiter or to the junk folder.

Increasingly, algorithms are also used in high stakes decisions, like assessment of asylum and visa applications, predictive policing, and identifying military targets.

So while you may not always see an algorithm, they are certainly there and certainly making an impact.

Recap: Algorithms are the step-by-step instructions computers follow to make decisions and execute tasks.

Example: Amazon uses algorithms to make product recommendations to boost online sales, including how long you take to make purchases and what you have bought in the past. (Source: The Amazon Project / Duke University. This website is a student project from Duke University, a highly-ranked, private university in the United States.)


Cookies sound like a tasty treat, but the online ones are actually small pieces of text that websites use to remember who you are and what you do. They are designed to make websites easier to use by remembering your password and that you like Formula 1 more than football, and so on.

There are a few different kinds of cookies, including ones created by individual websites for analyzing user behaviour. There are also ones developed to track users for external purposes. This is why you see ads for climbing gear all over the web right after you search for “rock climbing courses near me.”

There are even zombie cookies. Seriously. Zombie cookies come back from the dead even after you delete them. They’re always lurking there on your computer waiting to pop up and sell you something. They can even infect your computer with malicious software and viruses.

So before you take a bite, make sure you know just exactly what that cookie is going to taste like.

Recap: Cookies are bits of text sent to your computer to help websites track and analyze your online behaviour.

Example: Facebook uses cookies to remember your browser and device to keep you logged in. (Source: Facebook Help Center. Facebook is a social media platformed owned by Meta, one of the companies that typically make up Big Tech – see below.)

Big Tech

Big Tech is the collective, informal name for the biggest technology companies in the world. It usually includes the top few American, and sometimes Chinese, technology companies. These are Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Apple, Meta (Facebook’s parent company), and Microsoft. Chinese counterparts include e-commerce giant Alibaba, search and map provider Baidu, and Tencent, the biggest video game company in the world.

So how big is Big Tech? Brace yourselves. According to the Harvard Business Review, the general management magazine published by a subsidiary of Harvard University:

More than 50% of global online ad spending goes through Meta or Alphabet . . . And Amazon takes in more than 40% of online spending in the United States and runs nearly one-third of the internet through Amazon Web Services. Collectively, the Big Five earned income of about $197 billion on revenue of more than $1 trillion in 2020.

These companies are wealthier and more powerful than many countries. Profit-driven Big Tech uses your data to deliver targeted ads and personalized service, get you to spend more time using their products, and keep you loyal to their company.

Recap: Big Tech are the world’s biggest technology companies that control large parts of the internet and the development of digital technologies.

Example: 70% of internet users are active on at least one Meta platform, which includes Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. (Source: HootSuite. Hootsuite is a privately-owned Canadian social media management platform.)


Identifying and using trustworthy sources is a major part of being a savvy user of all digital technologies. Increasingly, websites and social media platforms are giving users more information about sources. We think it is important to model this in the course and will include notes about our sources along the way. You can see how we will be doing this in the definitions above.


Bravo! You’ve covered the basics and have learned why there is no such thing as a free cookie. You know the difference between data, digitization, and digitalization, and who is controlling it all. In the next section, you’ll hear from some experts on these topics. Ready? Click Complete Lesson to continue your digital justice journey.