About a year ago, I was walking between meetings on Capitol Hill in Washington, and a reporter called me. With breathless worry, he asked, "Aren't you worried about the increased militancy of the anti-advertising advocates?"
I had to laugh. "The job of the advocates," I replied, "is to be militant. It's not like one day they are going to declare, 'Good job guys, we're off to right some other wrong.'"
This debate typically is helpful since it pushes the outlines of the debate about Internet tracking. It keeps the industry leaders on our toes, ultimately to the benefit of consumers.
Every once in a while, the most influential of these advocates loses sight of the big picture. They think they are helping, but very quickly it turns out they end up helping the biggest companies on the Internet – precisely the ones they are always complaining about. This could happen again if Stanford graduate Jonathan Mayer succeeds at exploiting the Mozilla open source product development process to turn off third-party cookies.
For those of you missed it, Firefox initially sorta-announced through their hard-to-decipher open development forum that in their next release candidate, no new third-party cookies will be set. Now we have a full-blown controversy erupting. Everyone from the IAB to industry experts like Evidon co-founder Dan Jaye are weighing in. Kate Kaye covers the situation well in AdAge here.
Here's what it means to you – a loss of privacy controls for consumers, a degraded web experience and further tilting of the playing field toward the biggest companies on the web.
Jonathan Mayer and advocates like him continue to mistake their own paternalistic views of consumer privacy controls with what consumers actually want. Criticize the Ad Choices program all you want; but turning a main revenue stream off for most publishers and trying to hold back where most of the innovation on the web is happening will do much more harm than good.
I think you'll see that consumers too vote with their clicks here. Check out this chart below - notice anything?
That's an ugly trend line for two once-dominant browsers. Microsoft, the standard bearer of the misleading and ineffective Do Not Track setting and Firefox, have been getting smoked by Google's Chrome. Joining the "we know what is right for you, so let's punish the internet to try and grab back market share" club I expect to turn out as well for Mozilla as Microsoft's IE10 move has.
Consumers who want to effectively control how they are tracked online have easy to use, free tools like our company's Ghostery, AdBlock Plus, No Script and many others. These are easy to use, and just as easy to uninstall. They also block the actual scripts that track you, not the cookies that are increasingly easy to circumvent. By comparison, good luck trying to find the Firefox third-party cookie blocking default and change it. Want better-targeted ads and continued access to the content you love for free? Don't expect it from Firefox if this patch launches.
Helping big internet?
I've written about this before – that taking the control over how third-party data is collected out of the hands of consumers actually tilts the playing field toward the biggest American Internet companies, not consumers.
Just like Do Not Track, this new Firefox setting allows first-parties to set cookies to their heart's content. The largest first parties on the Internet – Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and LinkedIn will be able to continue to use the data from their registered users to target ads across the web using their own ad networks (disclosure, half of this list are Evidon clients and/or partners). So if this trend continues, watch for these big players to roll over the entire vibrant ad technology industry.
Advertisers won't have many choices of different services. No more vigorous competition to innovate and drive better return on their investment: Just a few choices from a small number of huge players who have a hammerlock on the industry and by extension the Internet as a whole.
Lastly, look at the other side of the equation – the publishers. Other than for a small number of huge publishers, shutting off the highly profitable stream of ad network revenue can spell disaster. Think that consumers will be happy when their choices for news and information start to look like network television? That's the potential with this move.
Above all, I'm about an open and vibrant Internet. Key to that vibrancy is giving consumers the very best transparency into and control over how they are tracked online. It's essential that consumers and the online advertising industry realize that this is a very risky proposition that hurts the very consumers that advocates like Jonathan Mayer and the Mozilla team claim to be protecting.