In the battle between online advertisers and consumer-privacy advocates, Mozilla has set off a bomb. The maker of web browser Firefox recently unveiled plans to include a new default setting that disables third-party “cookies,” bits of data that websites use to identify users. The not-for-profit tech foundation says it’s only responding to user concerns about how their movements are being tracked as they shop. Industry players counter that the move could choke off the marketing money that is the lifeblood of the World Wide Web.
If disabling third-party cookies sounds like a minor software tweak, it isn’t. “This default setting would be a nuclear first strike against [the] ad industry,” the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s senior vice-president and general counsel Mike Zaneis tweeted in response to Mozilla’s Feb. 25 announcement. On March 8, the bureau stated that Mozilla’s new browser will hurt the economy, the Internet—even consumers, because it may ultimately deny them ad-supported services.
Cookies are small amounts of data that websites deposit on a hard drive, allowing sites to remember users’ previous activity the next time they visit. While first-party cookies arguably provide some consumer benefit—they allow credit-card sites to work properly by matching users to their existing profiles, for example—third-party cookies don’t directly benefit users. They originate from domains different from the one in the address bar—for example, those serving the site’s banner ads. Visiting just a few websites can leave hundreds of cookies on a single computer.
Mozilla chief technology officer Brendan Eich has sought to dampen outrage over the feature, which will be in beta testing for a period until it ships with browsers. “Mozilla is not the first to propose this feature in a web browser,” he said in a statement. “For years, Apple’s Safari browser has only accepted cookies from the websites users visit, which is the exact feature Mozilla is now testing.” (All browsers allow users to turn off cookies, but the default setting is usually to accept them.)
Take a look at Firefox’s footprint, though, and it’s clear why the industry is having a tantrum. Firefox has 20% worldwide market share and is the No. 1 browser in a few countries such as Germany. Safari’s share of the web browser pie hovers around 5%.
By collecting information about consumers—such as which online ads result in sales—advertisers argue they can show higher-quality ads relevant to users’ actual interests, as shown by their shopping history. “The impact Firefox users will get is the ads will be less targeted to them,” says Eric Bosco, chief operating officer of American ad technology developer ChoiceStream, which uses third-party cookies to track the way consumers across North America interact with the ads of about 30 major brands, including online shoe retailer Zappos.
Some data-analysis firms collect and cross-reference information such as IP addresses and previous purchases in a way that lets them compile profiles whose fine detail alarms privacy advocates. Profiles can contain “life-event triggers” like getting married, buying a home or getting divorced, according to a ProPublica report.
Ad-industry members charge that Firefox’s unilateral strike undercuts their own self-policing efforts. Many third-party data firms now include small icons in the corners of banner ads that allow consumers to opt out of having their activities tracked— assuming the user even knows what the icon means. Industry group the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) has an opt-out tool that lets consumers disable tracking done by all NAI members at once.
“[Firefox] is saying to the IAB and the NAI and people who have been trying to sort through this for years, ‘F— you, and we don’t care about the consequences to the ad community,’” says Bosco. The actual percentage of users who use ChoiceStream’s opt-out tool, however? It’s miniscule—under 10%, he admits.
U.S. lawmakers are beginning to look into so-called data brokers, pushing these firms to be more transparent about what data they’re gathering, and getting permission from consumers. In 2011, Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart set guidelines saying firms tracking online behaviour should be transparent about the information they’re gathering and clearly give consumers a way to opt out. She also expressed concern over whether children could give meaningful consent.
Firefox’s activism may make matters worse, argues Bosco. It will drive unscrupulous advertisers to develop workarounds that allow them to collect the same information—and users won’t be able to opt out. “Total revenue from online advertising including search is US$20 billion every year,” he says. “It’s a powerful motivator for invention.”