Mozilla Comes under Attack - and of Age

Back in March, I wrote about the odd little attack by the European arm of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) on Mozilla's plans to put control of cookies firmly in the hands of users. Alas, the IAB seems not to have come to its senses...


Back in March, I wrote about the odd little attack by the European arm of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) on Mozilla's plans to put control of cookies firmly in the hands of users. Alas, the IAB seems not to have come to its senses since then, but has instead doubled down, and launched one of the most bizarre assaults on Mozilla and the open Web that I have ever read. I warmly recommend you to read it – I suspect you will find it as entertaining in its utter absurdity as I do.

It's entitled "Has Mozilla Lost Its Values?", which is strange, because what follows is a rambling moan about precisely those values, and Mozilla for daring to adhere to them. As you might expect, Mozilla has not "lost its values", it's defending them here just as it has always defended them. Here's the central argument of the IAB piece.

At first blush, Mozilla's ideology seems inarguable. "We simply believe that when personal data is collected to deliver these [personalized Internet] services, the collection should be done respectfully and with the consent of the consumer," the company said on its Mozilla Blog on May 10. Its decision to block third-party cookies by default was made "to strike a better balance between personalized ads and the tracking of users across the Web without their consent."

Seemingly benign, Mozilla's ideology is weighted down with counter-historical presumptions. The entire marketing-media ecosystem has subsisted on purchase-behavior data and other forms of research being available without individuals' consent. R.L. Polk & Co. receives automotive ownership data from some 240 sources, including state governments, auto manufacturers, and financing companies, to create profiles of nearly every vehicle on the road and the people driving them. This data has been central both to the health of the auto industry and to improvements in cars, driving, and auto safety over the years.

Got that? Because the car industry has been able "to create profiles of nearly every vehicle on the road and the people driving them", who obviously have no say in the matter, it follows that Mozilla should not be allowed to give Web users the ability to choose whether or not similar profiles are created online. This shows where the IAB is coming from: the analogue past, when advertisers could essentially do whatever they liked, because big business ruled. Today, the online world for the first time makes the relationship between consumer and seller a little more even. And the IAB doesn't like that one little bit. Here's what it claims would happen:

Were such sources of data suddenly to become unavailable – or if they were to shift from default-available to default-closed – whole industries would suffer, and along with them the people they employ and the communities in which they operate.

Or maybe the better ones would simply evolve to be more respectful of what their customers want, instead of arrogantly assuming they have a right to use all the information they gather without further ado. I think it's called the free market, where the public gets to choose the winners, who make money from serving it, and the others who don't, fall by the wayside.

Here, according to the IAB, is why blocking third-party cookies is wrong (and remember that Mozilla is not proposing a total ban, simply to give users more control over which third-party cookies are allowed):

Blocking third-party cookies by default is neither better nor worse than allowing them by default – but it does reflect a value judgment which affirms that the sanctity of the individual, in any way he or she chooses, transcends all other values, including important functions of civil society.

Er, well, yes, that's exactly what Mozilla is trying to do – affirming the right of individuals to choose how their personal data is used online. Is that so unreasonable?

The IAB thinks it is – nay, worse, it is un-American and unpatriotic;

Consider, for example, the role of commerce – the freedom to engage in which was a fundamental spark to the American Revolution.

So the American Revolution was about the right to make a profit, not about liberty and all that stuff. Gosh, we live and learn.

Although it may not be as apparent as when a customer enters a physical store, visiting a web site is a commercial act, during which a value exchange occurs. Consumers receive content, and in exchange are delivered advertising. The value of the delivered ad is currently calculated based on two essential points of data – where the ad is being delivered, and to whom. By blocking third-party cookies by default, Mozilla is turning off the anonymized but behaviorally relevant "who" signal, thereby reducing the value of most ads.

Well, if the value of ads depends on "to whom", then it's hardly anonymised, is it? And that's one of the biggest worries of these immense webs of third-party cookies: that put together, they essentially allow individual users to be identified, along with their most intimate browsing and buying habits.

But according to the IAB, truly anonymised Web use is little better than stealing:

The user effectively has been granted a right to engage in a commercial transaction without anyone knowing anything about that transaction, including the other party to the transaction.  This social decision carries costs.

So what would be the consequence of this anonymous "transaction"?

consumers and businesses will shoulder higher prices, in the form of more ads, more intrusively delivered. Or they will pay more for content. Or they will be asked for more explicitly personal information in return for the content.

Well, maybe paying for content would be a better model in some cases. And certainly being asked for personal information is better than having it gathered surreptitiously by hundreds of third party cookies – remember that Mozilla's privacy lead found that visiting just four sites caused 300 cookies to be loaded from 100 companies not involved in those sites – a staggering number.

This reluctance to evolve and to try out new business models is underlined by another section of the post that complains about the fact that users are choosing – of their own free will – to install AdBlock Plus, which is another manifestation of their desire to take back a little control:

In some markets, Adblock Plus is responsible for stopping as much as 50 percent of mainstream publishers' ads, significantly harming their revenue stream. For small publishers, the effect is devastating. Niero Gonzalez, the proprietor of the gamer site and a member of the IAB's Long Tail Alliance, says that half his users are blocking ads. "This means we're working twice as hard as ever to sustain our company," he has written.

To which I would say: if half of his users are blocking ads, that would indicate that they are extremely annoying. Has he considered changing them so that they are actually add value to a Web site, rather than distracting from it? Similarly, have the ad networks that claim they will go out of business if Mozilla places control in the hands of users considered trying to use their power more sensitively? If they do, then people are less likely to refuse to allow third party cookies on their machine. If they don't, and they are blocked, they deserve to be punished for refusing to respect the user.

This is the central problem with the IAB's argument. It wants everything to stay as it was in the good old days of selling cars, when personal information was simply gathered and used without any thought whether customers minded. That was because there was nothing the latter could do anyway. Now they can, and Mozilla is simply responding to their wishes, empowering them to make choices they have been denied for decades. That is, far from "losing its values" of placing the user and openness at the heart of everything it does, it is affirming them in the area of advertising by offering choice and transparency there.

Instead of attacking Mozilla, and its user-centric philosophy, the IAB should be trying to learn from it how to respond to this new, open and user-centric world, so that advertisers and Web sites can continue to make money there. The insistence that third-party cookies are absolutely necessary is just laziness born of arrogance – that advertisers have a "right" to track every move of visitors, and a right to squeeze as much profit from that info as they can. But they don't have that right: they simply had the power to do that – a power that they abused.

This assault on Mozilla and its values by a powerful business group like the IAB does have a positive aspect, though. It shows that from being a worthy but slightly obscure collection of geeks toiling away on issues mainly of interest to the technical community, Mozilla has grown to become so influential in the real world – the world of big money and serious profits – that it is being pilloried and demonised in this way. That's a compliment of sorts, since it means that Mozilla has truly arrived.

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