Mozilla Tool Could Turn Firefox into Ad Data System

Mozilla Is Testing a System that Targets Content Based on Web Browsing History

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Mozilla Firefox logo
Mozilla Firefox logo

Is Mozilla, defender of the web from third-party tracking cookies, about to get into the ad business?

The company today said it's been testing an opt-in system that targets tailored content to users based on their web browsing history, a move that would just as easily allow Mozilla, through its Firefox web browser, to get into the ad business by providing access to users' browsing data.

Considering Mozilla's recent efforts to curb the ability for other companies to drop tracking cookies on Firefox users, the decision is bound to raise eyebrows.

Mozilla has been testing its content personalization system since last year, according to a blog post from Product Manager Justin Scott today. The firm has enlisted "volunteer participants" to test the system which serves up custom content on "a network" of partner publisher sites. Early partners include German magazine publisher Hubert Burda Media and Hearst Publications. Mozilla highlighted Hearst's Popular Mechanics as a trial site.

The tool stores browsing and search history data on users' machines, allowing them to choose which sites to share that information with, or whether to share it at all. If, for instance, someone is willing to share his interest in celebrity news, he might be served that type of content as a result.

The initiative harks back to the tender days of digital advertising, when companies like DoubleClick were mere ad networks, or collections of websites that allowed advertisers to target display ads to users, often based on the type of content on the page.

It's also akin to browser-based software offerings of the earlier 2000s -- namely Claria's GAIN ad network -- that tracked user behavior and targeted ads and content based on that information. Now defunct Claria came under fire for disseminating spyware and failing to notify users of its tracking practices.

The difference here, however, is Mozilla's promise of user control and choice over how their behavioral data is used and how it's shared. Here's how Mr. Scott put it on the Mozilla Labs blog:

"For example, let's say Firefox recognizes within the browser client, without any browsing history leaving my computer, that I'm interested in gadgets, comedy films, hockey and cooking. As I browse around the Web, I could choose when to share those interests with specific websites for a personalized experience. Those websites could then prioritize articles on the latest gadgets and make hockey scores more visible. Destinations like the Firefox Marketplace could recommend recipe and movie apps, even if it's my first time visiting that site. And, as a user, I would have complete control over which of my interests are shared, and with which websites."

Right now it has been used only for content-targeting; however, as it exists today the system could be used to expose data for advertising, said for ad-targeting based on data from the system is certainly a possibility, said Denelle Dixon-Thayer, Mozilla's VP and general counsel.

"What we want is to continue to have the open web and continue to have the free web," said Ms. Dixon-Thayer, noting that publishers will probably use data shared by users through the system for ad targeting in the future. "There has to be a way for these publishers to make money," she said.

It's unclear how Mozilla might monetize the product, or when or if it will be released more broadly. "This is in the labs and we're testing. We want to make this succeed fast or fail fast," said Ms. Dixon-Thayer.

Mozilla earlier this year unveiled plans to include a default setting in Firefox that disables third-party cookies, much to the chagrin of the digital ad industry. The company later decided the technology was not ready for prime time. More recently, it paired with the Stanford Center for Internet and Society to create a Cookie Clearinghouse, or lists of suggested domains that browsers should allow to set cookies, ones they should block from doing so.

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