What If Web Browsers Told Us How Much The 'Free' Web Was Costing Us?

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It turns out that the “free” Web isn’t actually free. While most of the public’s attention has focused on the cost to our privacy of the bartering of our personal information, it turns out that the ad ecosystem that supports the modern surveillance Web costs us very real money through all of the bandwidth it consumes. What might it look like if our browsers and mobile devices actually tallied this cost for us and made us far more aware of how much our Web usage costs us in terms of privacy, bandwidth and money?

Imagine a Web where our browsers natively displayed a running tally for each Website of how many pages we’ve visited on that site this week/month/total, how much time we’ve spent on the site and how often we visit it on average per day.

In short, making us more aware of just how much time we spend on each site we use.

Now imagine that our browsers went a step further and translated these usage statistics into actual monetary and privacy costs.

In terms of privacy, the browser would show us how many distinct ads and tracking services have recorded our information and what they transmitted about us. A running counter would lead to an in-depth dashboard displaying it all. Of course, many tracking services act as brokers for countless others, so this number would dramatically undercount the number of people with our data, but would represent at least a first start.

More interestingly, our browser could allow us to enter the cost per kilowatt we pay for power and the cost our ISP charges per gigabyte (for fixed amount or “unlimited” plans the total allocated bandwidth would be divided by the total cost while for mobile it would be a combination of the allocation and per-gigabyte overage charge).

For each site a running counter would show us how much electricity and bandwidth our device has consumed accessing that site and the actual monetary cost we paid for that privilege in terms of what those kilowatts and megabytes cost us.

Viewing a brief 10-word social media post that consumed 75MB of bandwidth for all of the ads and trackers and behind-the-scenes code it ran might mean that for a bandwidth-limited user, that access cost them a nickel. Whereas they once consumed a hundred such posts a day, recognizing that their social media habit was costing them $5 a day might shift their viewing habits and place greater pressure on that social platform to offer a more optimized experience.

There are browser plugins today that provide many of these metrics, but until browsers provide such statistics natively by default they will remain the domain of the rare few rather than a guiding force for the general public.

As we consume more and more of the Web through the walled gardens of apps, our phones could similarly report such consumption details for each site we visit.

Putting this all together, if we actually saw the privacy and monetary cost of our Web usage, would it fundamentally change our online behavior?

Based in Washington, DC, I founded my first internet startup the year after the Mosaic web browser debuted, while still in eighth grade, and have spent the last 20 year