Last week, Mozilla announced the release of Lightbeam, a Firefox plugin that allows users to see not only the sites they visit, but also the third party sites that are tracking them on the web. Here is a screen shot of the last 10 sites I have visited and all the site those sites are connected to.
I love this tool for a number of reasons.
First, the obvious. It helps to make transparent all the sites I am actually “visiting” when I visit a website. In this day and age where privacy online is becoming more of an issue than ever before, it is important for people to know just how extensive the tracking of their behaviours is online. From what I have seen, Lightbeam doesn’t actually show you what information about you is being transmitted or tracked by those third party sites, just that there is tracking going on and with whom. But it is an important first step in understanding just how connected the web really is.
I’ll make the point, too, that just because you are unknowingly accessing third party websites while you view the web, it isn’t always to be tracked. As the development team suggests;
Third parties are an integral part of the way the Internet works today. However, when we’re unable to understand the value these companies provide and make informed choices about their data collection practices, the result is a steady erosion of trust for all stakeholders.
A tool like Lightbeam helps to make conversations about privacy and sharing of data more nuanced. Rather than painting all the third party connections with the same negative brush, I think it is important for us to have more specific conversations around the idea that maybe there are positives to having these invisible connections occurring behind the scenes. For example, many of the interactive features of the modern web require code libraries pulled from third-party sites. Is that Google connection to track you for advertising purposes, or is it to pull a font from the Google fonts collection to make the site you are on work better for you? These are important distinctions.
The second thing I love about Lightbeam is that it is a great web literacy educational tool, and extends the excellent work Mozilla is doing around web literacy by helping people understand how the web works. As building the web becomes more complicated, and the mechanisms of how the web gets built gets more obfuscated under the guise of “user-friendly” or “easy” (by no means are those neccesarily bad qualities, but obscuring qualities nonetheless), it is important that we don’t surrender the control we have over the web for the sake of convenience. Lightbeam represents a deeper dive for Mozilla into digital and web literacy than X-Ray Goggles or Thimble, but like those Webmaker tools Lightbeam exposes the inner workings of the web. Lightbeam, like the Webmaker initiative, are powerful tools to help educate people on how the web works.
Third, Lightbeam is an excellent example of an authentic learning exercise. Authentic learning (Educause PDF) exercises place a great deal of emphasis on having students work on real-world, complex problems and solutions, and I cannot think of anything more complex than the world of online privacy these days. Lightbeam was developed as a partnership between Mozilla and a research team at Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver that was made up primarily of students. They have created an important (and beautiful) tool that is relevant, timely, and has real world applications.
Finally, Lightbeam is another reminder of how powerful the iterative web enabled by open licenses can be. I’ve been jazzed lately by the idea of generativity and the generative web, and just how critical open licenses are for driving iterative, collaborative development. Lightbeam was based on a previous FF plugin called Collusion developed by Atul Varma. It was first released as an independent project by Varma (who now works at Mozilla). Because it was released with an open source license, Mozilla and Emily Carr were able to pick up the project and build upon the excellent work of the original plugin. Open licenses made the refinement of Collusion possible.