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Online Privacy & Mozilla's New Policy to Block Ad Cookies

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The online ad community has been up in arms since late last month when Mozilla announced its new policy that would block third-party cookies in Firefox by default, cutting out ad networks from being able to track online browsing behaviors. This would prevent advertisers from effectively targeting consumers with display ads in their web browsers. It poses a significant threat to online behavioral targeting technologies although a step forward in giving consumers more privacy and control over their personal information.

The controversy has sparked a heated debate within the advertising industry, with IAB president and CEO Randall Rothenberg publicly protesting Mozilla's decision in a recent blog post:

"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."

At last week's Digital Media Summit, Rothenberg received an unexpected shock. During his keynote interview with Terry Kawaja, founder and CEO of LUMA Partners, surprise guest Harvey Anderson, SVP of business and legal affairs at Mozilla walked onto the stage. As Adweek reported, Rothenberg looked genuinely taken back and while Rothenberg and Anderson were civil, at times even complementary, the exchange could be summed up in one word - awkward.

"There are some people at Mozilla who are actively against the ad business," Rothenberg stated.

"We're not opposed to advertising in any way, shape or form," retorted Anderson.

Ensuring user privacy is a growing trend, although may view it as more of a PR move than anything else. Late last year, Microsoft too, rolled out a default, "Do Not Track" browser header, which sends a message to third-party companies to not track users. The ad community responded by saying that it would not honor the new setting.

"It is time that Microsoft realign with the broader business community and provide choice to consumers, which is why ANA's board of directors has come together to emphatically denounce this ill-considered approach," Bob Liodice, ANA's president and CEO said in a statement.

In the letter, the ANA board of directors, which includes executives from well-known companies such as McDonald's, General Mills and Kraft, claim that Microsoft's default browser would destroy the effectiveness of Internet advertising. More consumers would not be tracked, and therefore, fewer ad dollars would be flowing to support free online content. While this may be true, consumers need to take the initiative to understand how their behaviors are being captured online.

Currently, both Google Chrome and Microsoft Internet Explorer still allow third-party cookies.

"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," stated Rothenberg in his blog post. "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."

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