Online Ad Industry Could Ignore Firefox's Do-Not-Track Feature

Industry Reacts to Mozilla's Plan to Follow Microsoft's IE and Apple's Safari

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Less than a year ago, Firefox browser maker Mozilla criticized Microsoft's decision to enable Do Not Track by default in its latest version of Internet Explorer. Now, Mozilla is doing just that. The next version of Firefox will include a default setting that disables third-party cookies -- the lifeblood of the complex digital ad industry. Initial reactions signal the digital ad industry could collectively ignore the Firefox setting, as it did in response to Microsoft's default tool.

A blog post by Mozilla's privacy and public policy lead Alex Fowler confirmed the plans, suggesting that the pervasiveness of third party cookies led to the decision. Third-party cookies are used by publishers and their partners for consumer behavioral data collection, ad targeting and site and advertising measurement and analytics. Apple's own approach to third-party tracking in its Safari browser was also an influence, wrote Mr. Fowler.

"Many years of observing Safari's approach to third party cookies, a rapidly expanding number of third party companies using cookies to track users, and strong user support for more control is driving our decision to move forward with this patch," he noted in the post. The company will test the function for several months before making it available in beta form, he added.

"Users of this build of Firefox must directly interact with a site or company for a cookie to be installed on their machine," stated Mr. Fowler.

Measures from StatCounter and NetMarketShare show Firefox had around 20% of browser market share in January. Safari had less than 10% by both counts. Google's Chrome and IE comprise the bulk of the remaining shares, though numbers vary regarding which of the two lead the pack.

Some argue Google built its browser in part to help combat approaches like the ones taken by Mozilla and Apple, in order to ensure it can track Chrome users across the digital ecosystem using first-party Google cookies.

Members of the online ad industry, many of whom are attending the annual Interactive Advertising Bureau conference at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona, are less than pleased with the announcement. Though most are still processing the news, initial reactions suggested the move by Mozilla could stifle competition and innovation, and negatively impact small publishers reliant on third-party cookies to produce digital ad revenue for their sites.

"While the intentions of FireFox are most likely good, the unintended consequences may outweigh the benefit that's achieved," said Ramsey McGrory, president and CEO of social sharing platform and data firm AddThis. "It just reinforces that the waters are choppy when it comes to anything having to do with data and privacy."

The IAB's SVP and General Counsel Mike Zaneis called Firefox's move "a nuclear first strike against [the] ad industry," in a tweet posted February 23.

The Mozilla decision could have an impact on companies like Turn, a DSP and Facebook ad exchange partner that said it opposed the move. "Mozilla is making a decision by default, without giving consumers a choice," said Joshua Koran, SVP product management at Turn. "We are strong advocates of the rights and preferences of consumers and anticipate that as with similar unpopular and anti-competitive actions, this unilateral initiative will be rolled back or will have minimal impact on the online advertising industry."

It's unclear why Firefox is going this route considering the company made a point of criticizing Microsoft for enabling a default Do Not Track mechanism in its own recent browser version. Mr. Fowler in June publicly opposed the then still-planned IE function in a Mozilla blog post, citing the global initiative to create a DNT standard by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C).

"If DNT is on by default, it's not a conversation. For DNT to be effective, it must actually represent the user's voice." At the time, the most recent draft reflecting the W3C initiative stated that a standard DNT mechanism "must reflect the user's preference, not the preference of some institutional or network-imposed mechanism outside the user's control."

Firefox did not respond to a request for comment regarding the apparent change in stance on enabling DNT by default. However, the fact that the W3C process is considered by many insiders and observers to be at a standstill could have been a factor.

News emerged on Friday of the Firefox patch, developed by online privacy tech stalwart and Stanford University computer science and law grad student Jonathan Mayer.

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