Stop using URL shorteners, to help protect the Web, please

I have been digging recently through very old Twitter archives, with posts dating from about 10 years.

At this time, size of tweets were limited and it was useful to use URL shorteners to be able to squeeze more text into your posts. The habit of shortening links started at that time and somewhat persisted until now.

I have found many problems in my Twitter archive, related to short URLs. Looking from a distance, it is more obvious that the use of URL shorteners is a weakness and thus can be considered a disease for the web.

Here are a few issues that we have we face when using short URLs:

  • URL shorteners can disappear. In that case, you will lose your original link, and there is no way to recover it.
  • URL shorteners are used for tracking. We already have enough trackers deployed in the wild. It is time to stop this type of tracking.
  • Size of tweets is now larger and Twitter stopped counting URLs against the text size limit (Twitter to Stop Counting Photos and Links in 140-Character Limit). We do not need URL shorteners anymore.

That’s why we should stop using URL shorteners. It was madness; it should end now.

I do not trust the argument that URL shorteners can be used to make the Web more secure by blocking access to hostile pages. Security should come from the browser and not rely on censorship of an URL shortening service (because, yes indeed, censorship can be used to censor/ filter content).

I would like to go further, however. As part as my new Data Portability Kit project, I have started writing tools to remove short URLs from the data the tool converts. It is like painting restoration and bringing back to life details that have disappeared. When converting your data into a portable format, the DPK toolset will follow the HTTP redirects and only keep the final link, thus removing the dependencies on the URL shortener.

The Web works because most of the URLs are stable and because it is decentralized. Let’s fight weaknesses created by centralizing links into useless URLs “resolvers”. Thanks for helping make the Web more robust.