Technology

Firefox's Cookie Crunch: Advertisers and Privacy Advocates Are at Odds

By / Feb 27, 2013 (Hemera/Thinkstock)

Firefox has announced it will block third-party cookies—a common tool for tracking users online—by default. One association exec calls the move a “nuclear first strike” against the ad industry.

One of the most popular viewing panes to the internet just made things a lot more difficult for the ad industry.

Cookies, a common tool for tracking user interests online, will be limited in future versions of Firefox—a move cheered by privacy advocates but criticized by advertisers. More details:

The situation: Many websites use a combination of first-party “cookies,” personal data nuggets from sites that users already have a relationship with, and third-party cookies, which look at wider swaths of the online pie, tracking users’ online movements. The combination is powerful, allowing for highly targeted advertising and analytics. Many types of sites, including e-commerce and content, combine the two types of cookies in an effort to better understand their customers. In the case of third-party cookies, the user may not have a direct relationship with the firm using such tracking. In recent years, privacy advocates have become increasingly concerned that the cookies allow companies to know too much about users’ browsing habits, while at the same time the ad industry has become more reliant on the increasingly sophisticated tools.

The Firefox plan: Earlier this week, Mozilla, which runs the Firefox project, announced the change. “Mozilla’s users frequently express concerns about web tracking, and we’ve been listening. We are constantly challenging ourselves to deliver a browser that conforms to user expectations while facilitating online innovation,” the company’s Alex Fowler wrote. It’s not the first browser to bow to privacy concerns. Safari has long blocked third-party cookies, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 10 enabled a “do not track” setting by default—a setting the Digital Advertising Alliance is not requiring advertisers to honor. After the change to Firefox, the only major browser that hasn’t taken actions regarding “do not track” or third-party cookies is Google’s Chrome—likely because that company directly benefits from such audience tailoring.

The reaction: The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s senior vice president and general counsel, Mike Zaneis, was first out of the gate to criticize the decision, taking to Twitter to do so. IAB, which had its annual leadership meeting over the weekend, has traditionally opposed efforts to limit advertiser access to user data, but it made time to hear concerns of privacy advocates at the meeting. On the other side, the Center for Democracy & Technology, a group focused on privacy issues in the digital age, argues that Mozilla has made a modest move: “Of course, Mozilla’s decision is just an interim step,” said the group’s Justin Brookman. “Third-party cookies are the most common tracking technology, but they certainly aren’t the only way to track users on the web. Ad networks now face a brutal choice, at least in the short term: give up on tracking Firefox users, or use less transparent tracking technologies like browser fingerprinting, cookie syncing, Flash cookies, simulated first-party cookies, or history sniffing—potentially inviting regulatory scrutiny.”

How could changes to the web driven by privacy concerns affect your association’s access to big data? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Clarification:  An earlier version of this story implied that Google Chrome was the only browser that didn’t block third-party cookies by default. In actuality, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer does not, but the latest version of that browser had enabled a default “do not track” setting, which the Digital Advertising Alliance is not requiring its members to honor. We apologize for the error. 

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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