Online ad group accuses Mozilla of anti-business bias

Analysts say there's more to the story, contend that users blame browser makers -- not advertisers -- for over-zealous data collection

An online advertising group this week attacked Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, for being anti-business, hiding behind a veneer of populism and harboring "techno-libertarians and academic elites who believe in liberty and freedom ... as long as they get to decide the definitions of liberty and freedom."

In a long -- almost 4,000 words -- and often-rambling blog post, Randall Rothenberg, the CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) took Mozilla to task over the open-source company's revamped third-party cookie blocking scheme, a point of contention between the online ad industry and the browser builder since the latter unveiled plans to block some of the cookies used by online advertisers to track users' Web movements, then deliver targeted ads.

Without ads, specifically targeted ads, the free content on the Web risks vanishing, argued Rothenberg. At best, the elimination of targeted ads means more advertisements, a claim the IAB has made before.

Although Mozilla ditched its original concept of third-party cookie blocking, acknowledging that the mechanism was generating too many erroneous results, the company instead announced last month that it was partnering with Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society to create the "Cookie Clearinghouse," or CCH.

The CCH's main job will be to create and maintain a centrally-managed set of lists that will finger sites whose cookies will be blocked and those awarded exemptions.

While the most provocative of Rothenberg's criticisms were aimed at what he called Mozilla's values, his biggest beef with the Firefox-CCH plan seemed to be that Mozilla had set itself up as an unelected "gatekeeper" with the power to decide the fate of online businesses.

"The company's own statements and explanations indicate that Mozilla is making extreme value judgments with extraordinary impact on the digital supply chain, securing for itself a significant gatekeeper position in which it and its handpicked minions will be able to determine which voices gain distribution and which do not on the Internet," charged Rothenberg.

"The browser is certainly the gatekeeper and the gateway to the broad landscape of the Internet," agreed Ray Valdes, an analyst with Gartner, acknowledging the realities of the Web. "But most users are not aware of privacy, or simply don't care, whether it's in the browser or on Facebook. It certainly doesn't loom large in the minds of the average consumer [although] it is a hot-button issue for a small part of the user population."

Al Hilwa, a researcher with IDC, concurred. "The browser makers are definitely in charge and are indeed the gatekeepers," he said.

Much of the problem that online advertisers have with Mozilla -- and Microsoft -- ultimately stems from that gatekeeper role, which the ad industry believes has been abused through unilateral decisions to, for example, block third-party cookies by default (Firefox) and switch on the "Do Not Track" privacy signal (Internet Explorer).

The browser makers' response is that users have expressed a desire for more online privacy.

But Hilwa sees more at play than a Manichaean view of business versus anti-business, as Rothenberg contended.

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