Off Topic

At the beginning of June, a major debate raised among the Italian netizens about the enforcement of a law by our Privacy Authority (partly due European Union) imposing to inform all users visiting any website about the deploying of cookies, especially the third-party and profiling ones.

The law got harsh criticisms for the technical complexity of implementation (which often involves active reactions such as asincronous injection of code on users' approval, and some kind of extra mechanism to remember which users approved the notice), legal complexity (each website has to include a detailed legalese text, blindly copied and pasted from someone else) and the marginal effect of those obligations (users tend to approve the notice without even questioning about the impact on their privacy, so the effort is completely pointless). But at least permitted to engage - again - a large debate about privacy on the web, and that has been for me an opportunity to review the third-party components I embedded on some of my websites.

Especially on the pages published by Italian Linux Society, association for which I'm the president in charge, involved in promotion of freesoftware and digital awareness - and, by extension, in privacy preservation. I had no intention to publish the usual "Cookies enable a better experience, click here to accept" message that many use to fool their users and continue to drop random tracking cookies, so I fired up Firebug and gone hunting for extraneous cookies with the aim to remove the problem at his roots. I sacrified the Twitter widget in the homepage, some Facebook's like-button, and was a little surprised to see that even the Creative Commons badges embedded from carried an alien cookie.

The only feature I was disappointed to remove has been the Google Groups widget once included in the WiiLD community homepage, displaying the latest messages published on the mailing list. It was an handly shortcut for the list itself, and a useful showcase of the arguments daily discussed in the public group.

I began to look for a solution. Founding no one, I implemented it myself.

In few hours I've hacked OffTopic, a small tool able to catch mails coming to a given mail address through the local mail server, index them by thread, and visualize the latest threads on a web widget. Of course, without sending any kind of cookie out. It has been easier than expected (especially thanks to this inspiring article about piping exim4 mails to a Laravel CLI command), and it can be used for any kind of mailing lists, even the Mailman or Yahoo Groups ones: it is required to just add the given mail address to the subscribers to run the magic.

Unfortunately I was not able to find a way to link each thread to the related instance on the hosted mailing list, but at least it provides a rapid solution to display the latest activities performed by the group. Any suggestion about this major missing feature is welcome.

As always, the service I operate on my server is free as in beer and as in speech. Pay attention that all contents are public, so do not use this instance for private (and with private archives) mailing lists.