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

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) 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 -- blog post, Randall Rothenberg, the CEO of the IAB US, 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.

Saying Mozilla was "caught in the middle," Hilwa argued that the company was reacting to pressure -- perhaps, as Valdes said, to a vocal minority -- because its users blame the browser, not necessarily advertisers, for privacy failures. "There is no doubt users will hold browsers accountable for any breaches of privacy or excesses of the advertising industry in siphoning data," said Hilwa. "[Browser makers] feel under pressure to control the type of data that can seep through their browsers."

The recent disclosures of widespread government surveillance has added fuel to that fire, Hilwa noted.

For its part, Mozilla declined to directly rebut Rothenberg's denunciations, and instead issued a statement that walked a line similar to what it has said before when it's butted against advertisers.

"Mozilla feels advertising is an important component to a healthy Internet ecosystem, and over the coming months we'll be working to address valid commercial concerns in our third-party cookie patch before advancing it to the general Firefox release," said a company spokesman, again intimating that the cookie-blocking plan was far in the future. "We'll continue gathering input while keeping the dialogue open with the hope that advertising industry groups will respect the choices users make to form the Web experience they want."

Mozilla, ironically, indirectly relies on advertising revenue for the vast bulk of its revenue. In 2011, the last year for which it reported financials, Mozilla earned US$162 million, or 99 per cent of all revenue, from deals with search engines, which pay the firm to make their services available to Firefox users.

Those deals are predicated on Firefox users clicking on ads within the ensuing search results.

Mozilla has been aggressively moving on to other projects, however, including Firefox OS, as a hedge against the decline of desktop browsing and a concurrent reduction in search-based revenue. But the desktop versions of Firefox, which until late 2009 were consistently gaining browser user share, have budged little over the last 12 months.

According to Web analytics firm, Net Applications, Firefox on the desktop accounted for 19 per cent of the browsers used worldwide during June. In mobile browsing, where Mozilla has devoted significant resources, not only to Firefox OS but also to an Android browser, Firefox held an almost-invisible 0.03 per cent user share.

The IAB's members include Apple, Google, Microsoft and Opera -- four of the five top browser makers -- as well as the BBC, CBS and IDG, the parent company of Computerworld.

This article, Online ad group accuses Mozilla of anti-business bias, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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