Last week, after a round of visits with advertising organizations and private declarations that its cookie-blocking plan was not a “done deal,” Mozilla Foundation, the lucrative nonprofit whose Firefox browser controls 20 percent of the world’s access to the Web, launched a new proposal to “address privacy concerns related to third party cookies in a rational, trusted, transparent and consistent manner.”
But Mozilla’s “Cookie Clearinghouse” is neither new nor a proposal, inasmuch as the no. 2 browser-maker seems hell-bent on implementing on a tight deadline cookie-blocking by fiat. It is not a clearinghouse for cookies – it is a kangaroo cookie court, an arbitrary group determining who can do business with whom. It replaces the principle of consumer choice with an arrogant “Mozilla knows best” system. It is not “independent,” as Mozilla claims, but is stocked with self-interested academic elites with whom Mozilla has long histories. Nor is it rational, trusted, or transparent, as I will describe below.
But oh, is it consistent – consistent with the history of large technology providers with substantial market shares wielding the indisputably virtuous concept of “consumerism” as a weapon to fight competitive battles. These browser warriors are indifferent to the collateral damage they might create among the small publishers, retailers, and other businesses that employ more than 5 million Americans, account for 3.7 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, and define the Internet’s richness and diversity.
In February 2012, the IAB and the other groups comprising the Digital Advertising Alliance agreed eagerly with the White House and the Federal Trade Commission to work with the major browser companies to honor browser-based choice for the DAA Principles – principles that underlie a successful self-regulatory mechanism to enable consumers to manage their data in digital environments, including the management of third-party cookies. That agreement, which involved several stakeholder groups, earned praise from the Obama Administration, the Commerce Department, and the FTC. It contrasted sharply with the ongoing challenges experienced by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), the NGO that manages the Internet’s underlying technical standards, in developing similar consensus-based consumer-choice mechanisms for the management of data, privacy, and “do not track” options.
Mozilla’s “Cookie Court” is just another blatant attempt by a powerful tech company to destabilize efforts by multiple stakeholders to reach consensus about how lives and livelihoods should be aligned in the Internet era. Mozilla is reassembling the players whose inexperience and antipathy to negotiation and consensus have subverted the early W3C processes. Its members have blithely gloated about their willingness to “put a number of third parties out of business.” They include technological totalitarians who dismiss negotiations with the haughty declaration that “it’s very difficult to see a long-term consensus approach,” and who equate corporate imposition of “the technologies at the browsers’ disposal” with “the consumers’ side.”
We admit we were hopeful when Mozilla proffered that its new system for managing cookies would make exceptions for “sites complying with DAA opt-out and supporting DNT.” But its proposal does nothing of the sort. Hundreds of companies, representing thousands of Web sites, belong to the DAA program; yet their advertising will be peremptorily blocked by Mozilla’s system. Tens of millions of consumers who have visited the DAA site and affirmatively opted to do nothing effectively choosing to allow ads relevant to them to be delivered will find their choice sabotaged. And Mozilla’s argument that sites “supporting DNT” may still be able to deliver relevant advertising is disingenuous. Since there is not yet a consensus definition for DNT – partly because Mozilla allies have so mismanaged or undermined the process for reaching consensus – it’s not currently possible for sites to support it.
Worse, there is nothing in the Mozilla system that recognizes, let alone offers solutions for, the particular needs of the many thousands of small publishers and retailers that depend on the Internet supply chain and the third-party cookies that, however imperfectly, are a central component of it. By making it punishingly difficult for advertisers to reach highly engaged audience segments through small publishers dependent on this third-party-cookie supply chain, Mozilla’s new system will prompt marketers to concentrate their ad buys among a tiny handful of giant Internet companies that dominate the deployment of first-party cookies. This fear has led almost one thousand “long tail” Internet companies to sign a petition asking Mozilla to reconsider its determination to block third-party cookies by decree.
The open-source Internet supply chain is a wellspring of strength; it has fostered one of the greatest fast waves of economic and cultural innovation in modern history. It is also a source of weakness, because it creates vulnerabilities in securing individuals’ and companies’ data and in assuring their desire to keep certain activities and interests private. But acknowledging and correcting for those weaknesses doesn’t require taking a blunt sledgehammer and destroying the digital supply chain. Rather, we need rational, consensus solutions that will meet all major stakeholders’ needs.
That Mozilla doesn’t understand this is unsurprising. After all, it represents nobody. It is part of a global distribution cartel whose members have been in a perpetual state of war with each other for 15 years. Browser makers should not be dictating the kind of economic and cultural policies Mozilla is trying to implement any more than television set manufacturers should be deciding which shows make it to your home.
The IAB, our constituents, and our partners in the DAA, have engaged in a serious effort to participate in consensus-building around the complex issues of protecting consumer choice and privacy while enabling the commercial activity that supports a diverse and robust internet. We welcome other serious participants. We do not welcome Mozilla’s proposed kangaroo court led by the very people who have thwarted consensus in the past and who have evinced not an iota of concern for the publishers, small businesses, and hundreds of thousands of people that depend on Internet advertising for their livelihood.