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Digital Advertisers and Mozilla Fight Over Cookies

Digital Advertisers and Mozilla Fight Over Cookies

Cookies -- those small software files that help websites remember websurfers and their interests -- are once again at the center of a privacy battle. Mozilla's proposal to block cookies has stirred the wrath of digital advertisers, who say the future of many small businesses hangs in the balance. Mozilla and privacy advocates say other browsers have made opt-in their default position for years with no ill effects to the online ad industry.

By Enid Burns E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
03/14/13 12:06 PM PT

Proposed changes to the popular Mozilla Firefox browser that would block third-party cookies have sparked the ire of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which claims the move will hurt how small businesses use ads to attract customers.

Mozilla's proposal will require users to give their permission for the installation of cookies, the software files that remember user preferences, website activity and other information. Advertisers and websites use cookies to track online interests and activities so they can better target ads and content. The non-profit organization says the change will add more privacy controls for consumers.

"We're very pleased that the feedback has been coming in. As a mission-based organization focused on user benefit, we hope to see more feedback from end users and the constituencies that represent them," Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich told the E-Commerce Times.

The IAB's Concerns

The IAB provided some of that early feedback in the form of a scathing blog post and lengthy FAQ. CEO Randall Rothenberg claimed thousands of ad-supported small businesses would have to shut their doors because of the changes. "These small businesses can't afford to hire large advertising sales teams," Rothenberg wrote on the IAB blog. "Advertisers can't afford the time to make individual buys across thousands of websites. The technology that brings these two interests together is the third-party cookie."

"The reason we did such an extensive FAQ is to walk consumers through the issues," Mike Zaneis, IAB senior vice president for policy and general council told the E-Commerce Times. "Mozilla needs to understand that this neither furthers consumer privacy, nor creates a positive user experience on the Firefox browser."

The battle is over opt-in vs. opt-out, with the IAB favoring the current opt-out status quo. "Mozilla has taken the opposite position and will make users opt in," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "The ability to do behavioral targeting and retargeting and ad networks generally will be adversely affected."

Cookies and Ads

A typical web site might have several first- and third-party cookies from parties such as the publisher, an analytics firm, an ad network and an advertiser. These cookies are part of the architecture of the Internet, Zaneis said.

"A third-party cookie is fairly transparent. They (users) know it's being set, they also have control over it -- every browser gives the option," he said. "The reality is users aren't using those tools in large numbers because they understand it. They like the way the Internet is working."

Mozilla responded to some of the IAB's claims. "We are not instituting this change 'in the next version of the Firefox browser,' as the IAB claims, nor do we have any intentions to harm small businesses or the consumer online experience," Eich said. "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. This will stay in our 'Nightly' build until we are satisfied with the user experience."

The kind of data that cookies gather actually enables innovation for publishers, advertisers and consumers, AddThis CEO Ramsey McGrory told the E-Commerce Times.

"When we look at the tools that we provide and how we leverage data, time and time again research shows that data provides relevancy to advertising, publishing and ecommerce," McGrory said. "Efforts by Mozilla do more to short circuit innovation and impact consumer experience than they likely intend."

Privacy and Data

Privacy proponents have been critical of website tracking activities and the digital advertising industry's attempts to self-police the issue.

"I am generally supportive of Mozilla's recent move to block third-party cookies, which increases user privacy and transparency for users. Most of the personalization on websites is accomplished through first-party cookies, and these would remain untouched," David Jacobs with the Electronic Privacy Information Center told the E-Commerce Times. "Moreover, Safari has had a similar cookie policy in place for a decade with no impairment to web browsing or user interaction with websites.

Mozilla's users have expressed support for greater tracking control, Jacobs said. "Many people had hoped that the advertising industry would meet its commitment to develop a 'do not track' mechanism by the end of 2012. But that has not happened. It's understandable that Mozilla might step into this vacuum and try to do something regarding DNT."

The IAB knows that most consumers won't change their settings, Sterling told the E-Commerce Times. "That's what's at stake. However, there's probably a middle ground that involves some education and discloses and easy tools for users that could be presented when they download new versions of the browser."


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