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Boston-based recipe company could be on hook for $300,000 in online-tracking lawsuit

A New York woman who sued America's Test Kitchen over Facebook-based "tracking" code on its Web site has agreed to settle the case without damages after the concern agreed to remove the code from its Web pages.

Anca Adams had filed a class-action suit that potentially could have cost America's Test Kitchen, which has 200 employees, 44 burners and 34 ovens in its Innovation and Design Building headquarters - up to $1 billion in damages had she won. But in a filing in the case in US District Court in Boston yesterday, her attorneys said the company had shown it had no lawsuit liability insurance and no resources to pay anything near that amount, oh, and, yes, there was no guarantee Adams would have won the case.

ATK’s representations about its finances - made in good faith and supported by documentary evidence - support the conclusion that it does not have the ability to fund a fair and reasonable damages settlement for a Class comprised of approximately 600,000 individuals.

As part of a settlement agreement, which has to be approved by the judge in the case, America's Test Kitchen agreed to reimburse Adams's lawyers for up to $300,000 in their expenses - and to pay Adams up to $2,500 for her time and trouble as lead plaintiff in the case.

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe agreed to settle a similar lawsuit by creating a fund to pay bostonglobe.com users who had "tracking pixels" attached to pages with video on them.

The pixels send a report to Facebook with some information about the browsers and users who call up the pages.

In both cases, plaintiffs charged this violated their rights under the federal Video Privacy Protection Act - originally passed to protect video-cassette renters from the sort of ignominy faced by one-time Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, who had his video-rental habits exposed after somebody rifled them out of the trash.

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PDF icon Complete complaint312.02 KB
PDF icon Details of the proposed settlement347.94 KB


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Comments

It should be a requirement that all plaintiffs and defendants state the number of burners and ovens in their possession, irrespective of the relevance to the case.

ATK could have at least given the woman one of each as part of the settlement given their relative bounty.

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The irony in this case is that, in the geekish world I live in, the word "burner" is also used to mean a phone or other device that's used just once (or for one situation), with no valid personal info/ID attached to it, and then discarded after the caper is over. The purpose is to prevent the user from being tracked.

Sounds like the plaintiff got burned here. Hmm… how many quasi-puns can I think up for this poor overworked word?

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Kinda sad to read this in this day and age: "The pixels send a report to Facebook"

When Adams downloaded a web file from ATK, the code for that page included to link to a one-pixel-sized image on Facebook's web server at facebook.com.

When her browser requested that image from facebook, her browser included with its request the value of any cookie original acquired from facebook.com that the browser had in its storage.

The Facebook server recorded some details about that action, including the time and the kind of browser that made the request, as well as, crucially, the value of the cookie, which allowed Facebook to identify the Facebook user who was visiting ATK.

So: In downloading that small image file, Adams's browser sent her Facebook identity to Facebook, which thereby learned of her web activity on a non-Facebook website.

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Good description. You're correct.

One (likely) solution is for people to stop using Chrome as their main browser, or any other browsers from slimeball companies (typically based on the same core as Chrome is, namely Chromium). Remember that Google, which makes Chrome, is in the spy-on-you business (that's how they attract advertisers, where a lot of their money comes from).

Microsoft isn't much better. Edge is based on Chromium too, but that's not really the problem; the problem is that Microsoft has jumped on the we-spy-on-you business, hoovering up your personal info for their own slimy purposes.

Your best option now is to get the Firefox browser, go to its Preferences (or Options or Settings, whatever it's called on your machine), go to the Privacy section, and make some choices. Just be aware that the more privacy-oriented you make the program, the more websites may choke a little on it. But that's not usually a problem in my experience.

Then, when you're comfortable with Firefox as your browser, learn how to install a (free) Extension (i.e. plug-in, or additional feature from a third party) into Firefox… and get YouBlock Origin (not "YouBlock" which is not the real thing; get uBO as we refer to it). Then you'll be in much better shape to protect your privacy online. (Still no guarantees, though.)

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I use uBlock Origin, but still accumulate dozens of tracking cookies. I use CCleaner to delete them periodically. We're all the product for many websites now. Facebook is among the worst. Even though I don't have it, Facebook plants a cookie when I visit a site that has their link on it, when I never click that link. Everyone should sue Facebook.

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I actually have a couple of custom rules in uBlock Origin just for that purpose:

||facebook.com$domain=~facebook.com
||fbcdn.net$domain=~facebook.com
||facebook.net$domain=~facebook.com

...meaning, block requests to a couple of Facebook domains unless I'm actually *on* Facebook, which is never these days. (There's also Facebook Container, which segments your cookies so that you can use Facebook but not let it see cookies set on other sites.)

Firefox is also gearing up for blocking this kind of third-party tracking in a big way, which I'm really excited for.

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I did not use any of a zillion puns for the headline, like, oh:

Lawsuit not quite the recipe for disaster local cookbook company had feared

or

Local recipe company won't be burned in lawsuit settlement

You're welcome.

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A local firm with 44 burners and 34 ovens makes one cookie worth $300,000

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Christopher Kimball spotted late at night downtown frantically pounding on a keyboard altering the code of his website.

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Years ago ...

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After whatever it was that happened at ATK, he found some space on Milk Street and set up a company called Christopher Kimball's Milk Street - and promptly got sued for trademark infringement by the Milk Street Cafe.

But a judge ruled, for several reasons, that Kimball was not infringing on the restaurant's trademarked name.

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I always assumed Kimball was associated with Milk Street Cafe. I also never assume I'm unique.

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But a judge ruled, for several reasons, that Kimball was not infringing on the restaurant's trademarked name.

A big one of those reasons was that Kimball had deeper pockets and could win a war of legal attrition against the less wealthy independent local business whose name he wanted to steal.

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It feels like my web activity is closely tracked by Facebook and Instagram and I had assumed it was through techniques like this. Does anyone have a sense of how common this is? If it is common, I wonder why they picked ATK to go after rather than a company with deeper pockets?

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So I'm going to say relatively common (even if I've only written about two of them).

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I would say, respectively: pretty much ubiquitous, and I think you answered your own question.

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I asked Google's AI chatbot, Bard, and it said somewhere between 10% and 34% of websites have the FB pixel in place. Any company that advertises on FB (or used to advertise) would pretty certainly have it installed, and so would most companies that have an active presence on the platform, and that covers a lot of ground.

Good question about why ATK got challenged on it. Maybe because they're somewhat video-centric in their content? It seems like that's what would bring them under the video privacy regulation.

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Common sense says that since these chatbots just make shit up, you should never ask them a question you're not willing and able to independently verify.

Bard in particular is set with a particularly low confidence threshold. None of them are safe to trust, though.

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This is very good advice. LLM chatbots are built to produce output that sounds plausible--which means sometimes it's right, and sometimes it's wrong but sounds plausible.

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Some adblockers (such as uBlock Origin, in Firefox, with its default settings) will block most of these tracking pixels. They're freaking everywhere.

Most people use adblockers to reduce annoyances, battery drain, and data usage. But they also help prevent privacy violations. They're a good everyday security measure, too -- even the FBI says to use one.

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UHub uses two ad networks that, yes, employ cookies (but not, as far as I know Facebook pixel thingees). There are ways to block them, which I suspect other folks could explain (not dodging anything here, I just don't know).

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After my laptop got fried by a virus back in 2014, you bet your bippy that adblockers went up the day I got the laptop back. Since then - not a single problem, and they're almost always put on new computers I get.

YouTube, on the other hand...they've been battling with adblockers because they want that ad revenue. Most of the ads that pop up are legitimate (supermarkets, products) but others are straight out spam and clickbait - e.g. "one little trick," "claim your bonus from the government", etc.

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I hereby file suite against Universal Hub, all of its employees and subsidiaries, including the French Toast Alert machine and Gnomes With Hammers LLC for $1 billion dollars, for tracking me as I go about my business of snark and transit nerdery.

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I will happily join in anticipation of my share of a settlement 5-7 years from now, e.g. a $5 Dunkin gift card.

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I'd hold out for a copy of the Storrowing coffee-table picture book.

There really needs to be a Storrowing coffee-table picture book.

Off-topic: in high school, some friends and I cut class to go see Irma la Douce. It was the spicy foreign film du jour. I barely remember the movie, but meeting my algebra teacher as we entered left a lasting impression.

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