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

Background

The ad industry's assault on Mozilla was not its first volley against browser makers.

Since Microsoft unilaterally decided last year to switch on the "Do Not Track" (DNT) privacy feature in IE10—Windows 8's default browser, which is now being pushed to Windows 7 PCs—the online ad industry has loudly condemned Redmond. In October, the ANA called Microsoft's DNT position "unacceptable."

Work by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) to come up with a DNT standard has effectively stalled over Microsoft's move and other issues, although the standards-setting group continues to meet, most recently in Berlin.

Last year, Brookman had predicted that, failing a DNT agreement, browser makers would take matters into their own hands. And that's what they've done, he said in a February post about Mozilla's decision. "Given the continued lack of an agreement on a Do Not Track standard, we think [Mozilla] made the right call."

From the ad industry's perspective, Microsoft and Mozilla are guilty of the same crime: Making privacy decisions for users. "I'm astounded, frankly, that [Microsoft and Mozilla] essentially say, 'I'm smarter than you are, we will decide for you,'" said the ANA's Jaffe.

But both Mozilla and Brookman pointed out that Mozilla's Firefox plans are no different than what Apple's Safari browser already does. By default, Safari blocks third-party cookies, and has since its 2003 debut. The iOS version of Safari has done the same since its 2007 inception.

"They don't get that the Web works fine on Safari," Brookman said. "That's a tough story for them, that Safari users aren't complaining, that they're getting the content they want."

Mozilla acknowledged it was not breaking new ground when it announced the plan to bar third-party cookies. Eich repeated that in his email reply to Computerworld's questions. "Mozilla is not the first to propose this feature," Eich said. "For years, Apple's Safari browser has only accepted cookies from the websites users visit, which is the exact feature Mozilla is now testing."

When asked why the ad industry reacted to Mozilla's move, while it had been silent on Safari's identical practice, Jaffe only said that the ANA—and by association, other advertising organizations—has spoken out against all decisions it believes threaten ad-supported websites.

"Any group that stands between consumers and advertisers is misguided and unnecessary," said Jaffe. "We have made many statements making that clear. This isn't a fight between the industry and any specific entity, but a philosophical fight."

Computerworld, however, was not able to find any public statements by the ANA or the IAB taking Apple to task for Safari's by-default blocking of third-party cookies.

Self-regulation?

The industry's silence may have been based on the small share Safari has of the desktop browser market: Just 5.4% in February, according to metric company Net Applications' calculation.

But Safari is the dominant mobile browser, with a 55.4% share there last month. Net Applications data showed that mobile accounted for 13.2% of all browser usage in February, making Mobile Safari's contribution 7.3% of all browsing. Add that to Safari on the desktop and Apple's browser's overall share, both on the desktop and on mobile, was 14.5%, or within shouting distance of Firefox's total of 17.3% (Mozilla has an almost-invisible share of just 0.01% on mobile).

By ignoring Safari on iOS, the ad industry shows shortsightedness, said Brookman. He had a point. In the last 12 months, mobile's share of all browser usage has almost doubled, climbing from 7.2% to 13.2%. At that pace, mobile browsing will account for 20% of the total by the end of April 2014.

In the end, Brookman saw the ad industry's censure of Mozilla as another example of its determination to stymie change and retain the status quo. "They do want to keep the status quo," Brookman said, adding that advertisers only want to concede the least possible.

Jaffe rejected that. "We have changed the status quo," he countered. "We have spent millions and years to create the program."

He was referring to a self-regulatory program, which includes an educational website and in-ad icons that when clicked let consumers opt-out of behavioral advertising, developed by the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), a collection of several ad industry organizations that includes the IAB and ANA.

Jaffe claimed that of the 18.5 million visitors to DAA's AboutAds website, only 1 million have used it to opt out of tracking, citing the figures to back up his contention that Internet users are not interested in tracking, surveys notwithstanding.

"The Internet was created on the foundations of advertising," said Jaffe. "There are true privacy concerns of the public, they're serious concerns and should be respected. We are having that conversation with consumers. But Mozilla is cutting off that conversation."

Not every advertiser agrees.

Last Friday, the Online Publishers Association (OPA), a group whose members include major online media outlets like Disney, ESPN, IDG—Computerworld's parent company—NBC, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, pooh-poohed the ANA's and IAB's portents.

"In spite of the doom-saying, Mozilla's move to block third-party cookies in the newest version of Firefox does not spell disaster for the advertising and publishing businesses," the OPA said. "If anything, it sheds more light on the need for an ecosystem-wide solution."

The OPA's members, of course, would be little harmed by Firefox's third-party cookie blocking, as they are large enough to sell their own ad inventory, and have little or no need to go to the third-party ad networks whose tracking would be impacted.

Brookman made much the same call as the OPA in his February blog post. Noting that the ad industry had promised the Obama administration it would participate in self-regulation, but that tracking had in the meantime ballooned, Brookman had hopes that Mozilla's move would nudge advertisers to "reach accommodation on a reasonable opt-out regime for third-party tracking," preferably through the W3C.

But if the industry doesn't, it's fighting a battle it cannot win.

"Browsers have a direct relationship with the user," Brookman observed. "On the other hand, ad networks' relationship with the user is intermediated by those same browsers, as well as publishers who are also increasingly worried about user trust."

Updated 3/25/2013 at 2:25 p.m. with correct percentages for browser market shares.

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