When Mozilla announced a plan to improve its system for blocking third-party cookies, it didn't seem like the kind of thing that would make waves. But it didn't take long for the Internet advertising industry to react — furiously. The Digital Advertising Alliance called the proposal "draconian," while the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Randall Rothenberg pronounced it a "kangaroo cookie court."
What are the advertisers so worried about?
It's the "Cookie Clearinghouse" Mozilla proposes to use to improve the accuracy of Firefox's cookie-blocking function. Most browsers already offer varying levels of cookie-blocking — particularly aimed at cookies that allow "third parties" (analytics companies, marketers, etc.) to tag your computer so they can recognize you on other websites.
But cookie-blocking is a blunt instrument, and when you turn it on, some sites don't work right. Mozilla's lead privacy engineer, Sid Stamm, says he wants to build a better cookie-blocker, "[one] that blocks only the bad stuff and allows only the good stuff."
That master list will be the Cookie Clearinghouse, which will be hosted at Stanford. Experts will curate the list, with an eye to transparency and user privacy, while looking for certain technical problems that only human beings can sort out. (Here's a geeky explanation.)
It's those humans Rothenberg doesn't trust. "[They're] academic elites who have no relationship whatsoever with the business of advertising, making Star Chamber decisions about what gets blocked and what doesn't get blocked," he says.
Advertisers worry about the financial consequences. If Mozilla's super-cookie-blocker catches on, it could undermine the business of targeted advertising — particularly the third-party ads that sustain "the mommy blogs and the libertarian political sites," as Rothenberg puts it.
But there's a bigger fight here, too.
For the past few years, the online advertisers have been negotiating with browser makers and privacy groups over the details of the "Do Not Track" system. The DNT option is already built in to most of the newest browsers. You can check if yours is on by visiting this test page.
The problem is DNT doesn't do much, yet. The parties haven't been able to agree on what websites should do when they see that you've set the Do Not Track option on your browser (or your mobile device). The negotiations, hosted by the W3C organization, have been bogged down by a lot of details. But the core difference is that advertisers believe DNT should limit which ads you see, while privacy groups think DNT should block websites from collecting your information.
The current uproar over spying by the National Security Agency has increased public concern about privacy, which in turn has turned up the pressure on all sides to finally agree to a DNT standard. Browser manufacturers are especially worried about blowback from the public; just a week after the first NSA leaks, Microsoft ran big Sunday newspaper ads that tried to reassure the public about privacy — and it touted Internet Explorer's Do Not Track function as evidence of the company's concern for user privacy.
Browser makers are showing increasing willingness to go it alone on privacy — that is, to disregard the concerns of the ad industry. Last year, the advertisers' rage was directed at Microsoft, when it made Do Not Track the default setting on its newest browser. Default DNT is the last thing the advertisers want, since most people leave the default settings on.
"It's kind of like an arms race," says Ashkan Soltani, a consultant who worked on Internet issues at the Federal Trade Commission. He's an avid user of these privacy tools.
"Each step you take — by blocking cookies, by blocking ads, by deleting cookies on a regular basis — each step makes it a little more difficult to identify you," Soltani says.
But he says the websites also keep inventing new ways to track people, so he's not sure this is an arms race that either side can really win.
The IAB's Rothenberg says ad-supported Internet companies support user education about privacy options, and he wants people to make informed decisions. But he's also worried about the rise of what he calls "the fairly reactionary point of view that all third-party cookies are bad."
Still, between Edward Snowden's NSA revelations and the new privacy tools being developed by Mozilla and other browser makers, Rothenberg is facing an uphill battle to convince people that they should feel good about third-party companies that put tracking cookies on their hard drives.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
With growing public concern over online privacy, software companies are developing new tools for covering your tracks on the Internet. One of the most basic tools is the cookie-blocking option on Web browsers, but it's sometimes clumsy to use. Browser companies are working on ways to improve the blockers.
And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, that is a development that worries online advertisers.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Draconian is the word they're using over at the Digital Advertising Alliance. At the Interactive Advertising Bureau, they call it a kangaroo court that threatens free expression online. What is it the advertisers are so worried about? It's something called a cookie clearinghouse.
SID STAMM: So the cookie clearinghouse is a proposal to make a more nuanced version of cookie blocking.
KASTE: That's Sid Stamm. He's the lead privacy engineer at Mozilla. They're the ones that make Firefox. They want to fine-tune their browser's ability to block something called third-party cookies. Those are the bits of code that companies put on your machine so that they can recognize you wherever you go on the Web. You can already set your browser to block these but it's kind of a blunt instrument. And when you do it, some websites don't work right.
So Mozilla wants to build a better cookie blocker.
STAMM: That blocks only the bad stuff and allows only the good stuff.
KASTE: But that means somebody has to decide between the good stuff and the bad, and that's where the cookie clearinghouse comes in. It'll be a group of experts at Stanford University and they'll keep the master list of cookies.
Randall Rothenberg runs the Interactive Advertising Bureau. He objects to the people who'll be running this clearinghouse.
RANDALL ROTHENBERG: Academic elites who have no relationship whatsoever with the business of advertising, making star chamber decisions about what gets blocked and what doesn't get blocked.
KASTE: Rothenberg says these are people who don't seem to appreciate that targeted advertising is what pays for a lot of what we do on the Web.
ROTHENBERG: When people take the fairly reactionary point of view that all third-party cookies are bad, that means they are damaging the economics of that very, very diverse media ecosystem. And it's just not healthy.
KASTE: Aleecia McDonald is one of those academic elites that Rothenberg worries about. She'll be the one running the cookie clearinghouse. She understands that the advertising industry is upset, but she points out that no one is forcing anybody to block cookies.
ALEECIA MCDONALD: All of the same options will still be there. Users can go back to just the way Firefox works today. But for the advertisers, they have some money riding on this and so they're very concerned.
KASTE: They're concerned because right now, most people don't bother to use the blocking option. But they might if Mozilla makes it more functional, or if Mozilla makes blocking the default setting. Randall Rothenberg guesses that more people are now trying cookie-blocking. He assumes there's been a reaction to the news about spying by the NSA.
But for the advertisers, the real long-term worry is the browser makers, like Mozilla and Microsoft. They seem to be increasingly willing to go their own way when it comes to privacy and to offer users more ways to hide.
ASHKAN SOLTANI: It's kind of like an arms race.
KASTE: Ashkan Soltani is a consultant who worked on Internet issues at the Federal Trade Commission. He's an avid user of these privacy tools.
SOLTANI: Each step you take, by blocking cookies, by blocking ads, by deleting your cookies on a regular basis, each step makes it a little bit more difficult to identify you.
KASTE: But he says the websites also keep inventing new ways to track people, so he's not sure this is an arms race that either side can really win. Soltani says it would be better if the advertisers and the privacy groups reached some a kind of truce. And, as it happens, they have been talking.
They've been debating the details of a new Do Not Track system. That's a proposal to let people set their browsers, or their devices, to signal that they don't want to be tracked. But the negotiations have been dragging on now for a couple of years. So far, the two sides can't seem to agree on just how much privacy people should get when they ask for it.
Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.