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Who are these companies and what do they want from me? Alexis Madrigal’s voyage into the invisible business that funds the web.

“This morning, if you opened your browser and went to NYTimes.com, an amazing thing happened in the milliseconds between your click and when the news about North Korea and James Murdoch appeared on your screen. Data from this single visit was sent to 10 different companies, including Microsoft and Google subsidiaries, a gaggle of traffic-logging sites, and other, smaller ad firms. Nearly instantaneously, these companies can log your visit, place ads tailored for your eyes specifically, and add to the ever-growing online file about you.” […]

“Behind the details, however, are a tangle of philosophical issues that are at the heart of the struggle between privacy advocates and online advertising companies: What is anonymity? What is identity? How similar are humans and machines? This essay is an attempt to think through those questions.”

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