The Interactive Advertising Bureau strongly opposes the scheme by Mozilla to block third-party cookies by default in upcoming releases of its Firefox browser, and we vigorously encourage both the non-profit Mozilla Foundation and its for-profit subsidiary the Mozilla Corporation, which is reconfiguring the Firefox browser, to abandon this proposed change. This move will not put the interest of users first. Nor does it promote transparency or “move the web forward,” as Mozilla claims in its announcement. It will not advance Mozilla’s objective, as stated in its bylaws, of “promoting choice and innovation on the Internet,” but will, instead, impede both. If Mozilla follows through on its plan to block all third-party cookies, the disruption will disenfranchise every single internet user. All of us will lose the freedom to choose our own online experiences; we will lose the opportunity to monitor and protect our privacy; and we will lose the chance to benefit from independent sites like RightWingNews.com LiberalOasis.com, MotherhoodWTF.com, and SuburbanDaddy.com because thousands of small businesses that make up the diversity of content and services online will be forced to close their doors.
Finally, as a journalist for most of my professional life and a reader for 53 years, I object—as I hope all journalists and readers would object—to any move like this, which empowers a handful of giant technology companies to control and impede the flow of news, information, and entertainment that characterizes the richness and openness of the ad-supported Internet.
IAB is responsible for assuring the economic viability of the entire ad-supported internet. This responsibility extends across the vast sweep of America’s geography and economy: It encompasses the individual consumer in Oklahoma reading about vegetable gardening on a small, ad-supported blog, to the independent blogger in Ithaca, New York who is putting this valuable information out there and who relies on advertising to compensate her for her labors, to the big-time publishers of news, weather information and food trends in Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco that also are dependent on advertising, and finally to the advertisers themselves that invest in the production of engaging, informative, and brand-building experiences that the Oklahoma gardener might find interesting.
The economy behind this chain of intersecting interests contributed 5.1 million U.S. jobs and $530 billion to the U.S. economy in 2011. This digital media-marketing value chain drives prosperity in this country, even during challenging economic times.
It is also dependent upon internet users going online in droves to enjoy robust, personalized experiences with an uncompromised sense of trust. In 2012, the Obama administration endorsed the work of the Digital Advertising Alliance, of which the IAB is a part, for creating a robust self-regulatory program to protect consumer privacy rights and expectations in the advertising-supported internet. This program gives more than 5,000 participating internet publishers, marketers, and other advertising industry companies clear ground rules for activity and exerts penalties if not adhered to. The principles of the program come to life most visibly through a small icon adjacent to advertising that’s delivered to a user based on the educated guess that the ad will be relevant to them. This icon links users to a page with information about how user data is collected and used, and gives them an opportunity to opt-out from the practice. More than 1 trillion of these icons are delivered to U.S. consumers each month.
If third-party cookies are blocked, this program will no longer be effective. A third-party cookie is the technology that tells companies a user has opted out of interest-based advertising through the program; it’s the sign that says, “I’ve chosen not to be tracked.” Cookies can easily be deleted by users through any browser. They are also transparent—any user can find out which ad-supported companies are present in his or her browsers and cherry-pick which cookies they will allow to track their site usage. Today, third-party cookies empower consumers to control their own privacy on an internet-wide scale.
If third-party cookies are blocked, thousands of ad-supported small businesses—start-ups, small publishers, and mom-and-pop shops—will be forced to close down. These small businesses can’t afford to hire large advertising sales teams. Advertisers can’t afford the time to make individual buys across thousands of websites. The technology that brings these two interests together is the third-party cookie.
If third-party cookies are blocked, all advertising on the internet will diminish in value because advertisers won’t be able to control the delivery and performance of their ads. They will no longer know how many different people saw an ad or if the ad inspired someone to make a purchase. In fact, they could accidentally serve the same ad to the same person 1,000 times and never know it—to a person who might not have any interest in the product whatsoever. Without third-party cookies, the web will revert to a giant spam machine.
If third-party cookies are blocked, consumers will no longer receive content and promotions that are expected to match their interests. It is the third-party cookie that tells content producers and advertisers whether you’re more likely to be interested in information about baby strollers or retirement planning services. It is also the third-party cookie that enables urgent messages like AMBER Alerts and weather emergencies to be delivered to relevant, localized audiences.
If Firefox bans third-party cookies, the experience Firefox users will have online will change for the worse. Without third-party cookies, they will not be able to participate in the existing industry system for privacy protection. They will see an increase in the irrelevant spam advertising served to them, and they will lose the privilege of having content that matches their interests.
All users, no matter the browser they’re using, will lose access to independent websites produced by small businesses. The Firefox browser has an approximate 15-20 percent market share; a 15-20 percent cut in ad revenue will damage or doom many mid-sized and small industry participants, particularly small publishers.
This is not an invented fear. Mozilla Foundation and its Firefox browser have been implacably opposed to advertising for years. They are the primary purveyors of the Adblock-Plus browser add-on, which is blocking up to half the advertisements on small publishers’ sites, severely damaging their businesses. “30-45% of our readers use an ad blocker,” Niero Gonzalez, founder of the independent gamer site Destructoid.com, tweeted recently. “Disheartening, as I could be paying my writers more.”
“We're working twice as hard as other sites to sustain our company, as if keeping a group of game writers fed isn't difficult enough,” he added in a blog post on his site. “We see gaming sites shut down or selling out so often these days.”
Browsers are our doorways into the internet. If the companies behind these doors begin to close them—deciding for users which parts of the internet they’ll get and which they won’t, favoring big tech-driven businesses at the cost of small, independent businesses—then the internet will no longer be the vibrant and thriving community that it is today.
As president and chief executive officer of the IAB, and an unwavering supporter of freedom of choice online, I strongly encourage Mozilla to rethink its current and misguided path. Its intended method of protecting the user will stifle the life-changing innovations and access to information made possible by the internet. It will cost jobs, and it will destabilize the ad-supported internet economy—the freest, richest, and most culturally diverse economic engine the world has ever known.
President and Chief Executive Officer
Interactive Advertising Bureau