When Lou Montulli invented the cookie in 1994, he was a 23-year-old engineer at Netscape, the company that built one of the internet’s first widely used browsers. He was trying to solve a pressing problem on the early web: Websites had lousy memories. Every time a user loaded a new page, a website would treat them like a stranger it had never seen before. That made it impossible to build basic web features we take for granted today, like the shopping carts that follow us from page to page across e-commerce sites.
Within two years, advertisers learned ways to essentially hack cookies to do exactly what Montulli had tried to avoid: follow people around the internet. Eventually, they created the system of cookie-based ad targeting we have today. Twenty-seven years later, Montulli has some misgivings about how his invention has been used—but he has doubts about whether the alternatives will be any better.