Much to the disappointment of the digital advertising establishment, Mozilla is going ahead with plans to automatically block third-party cookie tracking in its Firefox browser.
Mozilla first announced its Do Not Track browser in February, only to back off in May saying it needed to do more testing. But that didn't stop a growing chorus of loud protests from the advertising community, which argued that the browser would choke off the ad-supported Internet. The Interactive Advertising Bureau's general counsel Mike Zaneis called Mozilla's browser nothing less than a "nuclear first strike" against the ad community.
No date has been set for when Firefox will turn on the feature, but advertisers, which have been regularly meeting with Mozilla and were hopeful for a compromise, are already lashing back at Mozilla.
"It's troubling," said Lou Mastria, the managing director for the Digital Advertising Alliance, which manages an online self-regulatory program called Ad Choices that provides consumers with the choice to opt-out of targeted ads. "They're putting this under the cloak of privacy, but it's disrupting a business model," Mastria said.
Advertisers are worried that Mozilla's plans could be the death knell to thousands of small Web publishers that depend on third-party targeted ads to stay in business. Nearly 1,000 signed a petition urging Mozilla to change its plans.
"One publisher said that 20 percent of their business would go away. That's huge," said Mastria. "Mozilla is really picking business model winners and losers."
Not all cookies will be blocked under Mozilla's latest plans for its proposed browser; there will be exceptions. Through a partnership with the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, the two are launching a Cookie Clearinghouse. Overseen by a six-person panel, it will determine a list of undesirable cookies and then block those.
"The Cookie Clearinghouse will create, maintain and publish objective information," Aleecia McDonald, director of privacy at CIS, said in a statement. "Web browser companies will be able to choose to adopt the lists we publish to provide new privacy options to their users."
But others say the approach is far from objective. "What these organizations and the privacy groups that back them are really saying is 'let us choose for you because we know best,' " said Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "The proponents of this model have claimed they are empowering users. … This is basically Sarah Palin's 'Death Panels' but for the Internet."
Advertisers have so far resisted some of the Do Not Track proposals advocated by privacy groups arguing they are technological solutions that could quickly be rendered obsolete by the fast-moving Internet economy. When Micosoft launched its Do Not Track default browser, advertisers said they would not honor it. Meanwhile, members of the World Wide Web Consortium's tracking group, represented by advertisers, privacy groups and other stakeholders, have been unable to reach consensus about a universal Do Not Track browser solution.
In Congress, where baseline privacy legislation has moved at a glacial pace, Mozilla's news gave Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) more ammunition for his Do Not Track Online Act. Introduced earlier this year, the bill hasn't gotten much traction and only has one co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
"With major Web browsers now starting to provide privacy protections by default, it's even more important to give businesses the regulatory certainty they need and consumers the privacy protections they deserve," Rockefeller said in a statement. "I hope this will end the emerging back and forth so we can act quickly to pass new legislation."