Ad industry threatens Firefox users with more ads if Mozilla moves on tracking plans

The online ad industry has attacked Mozilla over its decision to block third-party cookies in a future release of Firefox, calling the move "dangerous and highly disturbing," and claiming that it will result in more ads shown to users.

The fierce reaction came from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and Association of National Advertisers (ANA), both of which laid out positions in blog posts on March 14.

Dan Jaffe, the ANA's vice president of government relations, denied that it was a coordinated campaign, even though both the ANA and IAB blasted Mozilla on the same day and used many of the same arguments—notably the threat to small businesses and a resulting curtailment of user choice on the Internet.

"The short answer is 'no' [it was not coordinated]. But all in the online ad industry are concerned about this ill-considered decision," said Jaffe in an interview. "This is damaging to consumer interest and will undermine the Internet."

What they said

In their blogs, the two groups lambasted Mozilla, predicting dire consequences, including the shuttering of small businesses and small websites, fewer choices for online users, and more ads in Firefox.

"If Mozilla follows through on its plan ... the disruption will disenfranchise every single Internet user," said Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the IAB, in his post. "All of us will lose the freedom to choose our own online experiences; we will lose the opportunity to monitor and protect our privacy; and we will lose the chance to benefit from independent sites ... because thousands of small businesses that make up the diversity of content and services online will be forced to close their doors."

Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. scoffed at some of Rothenberg's arguments. "This idea that blocking cookies is depriving users of choice rings hollow," Brookman said. "They talk about the small publishers, but it's small ad networks that they represent. [Even then], it's unclear how much small sites depend on behavioral advertising."

Although Firefox is not the world's most-used browser—that distinction belongs to either Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) or Google's Chrome, depending on which measurement one uses—it accounted for between 20.1% and 21.4% of browsers used last month on desktop and notebook computers.

Mozilla to block third-party tracking cookies

What raised the IAB's and ANA's hackles was Mozilla's decision last month to automatically block all third-party tracking cookies in a future version of Firefox, perhaps as soon as June with the release of Firefox 22.

Cookies are used by online advertisers to track users' Web movements, then deliver targeted ads, a practice labeled "online behavioral advertising," or OBA, by the ad industry.

The new Firefox policy will allow cookies presented from domains that users actually visit—dubbed a "first-party" site—but will automatically block those generated by a third-party domain unless the user had previously visited the cookie's site-of-origin.

cookies

The result, argued Jaffe, will not be what people expect. "The facts are that [Firefox users] will get more ads, not less, and those ads will not be tailored to their interests," he said. "They'll see untargeted ads, which will look like spam. We have to get this information to them somehow."

Mozilla has not set a Firefox release for the third-party cookie blocking, but the earliest would be Firefox 22 in late June. That edition is slated to move out of the "Nightly" channel, the roughest-edged version aimed at developers, into Aurora on April 2.

But it could be pushed to a later Firefox, or never see daylight. "As with all our new Firefox features, there will be months of evaluating technical input from our users and the community before the new policy enters our Aurora, Beta and General release versions of Firefox," said Brendan Eich, Mozilla's CTO, in an email. "This will stay in our Nightly build until we are satisfied with the user experience."

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