The IAB wants you to know that if you don’t let online advertisers follow you around when you’re surfing, then you’re scum, a criminal and probably a traitor to your country. At least, that would seem to be the thick of it from reading their latest in a series of diatribes against Mozilla published last Tuesday on their website under the heading “Has Mozilla Lost Its Values?”.
The article is mainly in response to Mozilla’s plans to disable third party cookies by default in Firefox. However, they also don’t like the Cookie Clearinghouse, which is odd since it would allow “first party” tracking cookies through the use of blacklists and whitelists, which would seem to be something that would help them.
In case you don’t know, the IAB stands for Interactive Advertising Bureau. They’re the organization that represents the online advertising business. In other words, the IAB is to folks like Google what the NAB is to broadcasters or the AMA is to those practicing medicine. You can see some of their handy work right here on this page, as they’re the organization that sets the standard sizes for Internet ads. As you might imagine, the IAB doesn’t care much for Mozilla’s position that computer users should be in control of little things such as what cookies are allowed, or not.
Their arguments seem surreal, almost Orwellian. They seem to think we’re automatically being anti-business when we say we don’t want to be tracked or followed around when we’re online. Now, I’m a pretty dim light bulb, but I really think that what most of us mean when we say we don’t want to be tracked is merely that we don’t want to be tracked. We’re not making any kind of capitalism vs. socialism judgement at all, we just think some businesses need to adjust the way they operate–at least if they want to get our business.
But we’ve had this accusatory finger pointed at us before. Remember Ballmer claiming that we were communists because we used Linux, implying that to use open source software was somehow unpatriotic, perhaps even treasonable? He even convinced Howard Coble, a congressman from North Carolina where Red Hat calls home, to publicly call-out Linux as anti-American.
This is no different.
Or how about the record companies claiming we had no right to DRM free music. They got Microsoft on that bandwagon to the point where Redmond was incorporating DRM enforcement into their software, but even the proprietary angel Steve Jobs understood that pig wouldn’t fly and convinced the record companies that they might have a better chance of selling music if they quit acting as if music listeners were their enemies. Guess what? It worked. Surprised?
The IAB, like the RIAA, the Hollywood guys, Ballmer and all who have come before, make their arguments with misdirection and slight of hand:
“Seemingly benign, Mozilla’s ideology is weighted down with counter-historical presumptions. The entire marketing-media ecosystem has subsisted on purchase-behavior data and other forms of research being available without individuals’ consent. R.L. Polk & Co. receives automotive ownership data from some 240 sources, including state governments, auto manufacturers, and financing companies, to create profiles of nearly every vehicle on the road and the people driving them. This data has been central both to the health of the auto industry and to improvements in cars, driving, and auto safety over the years.”
This is classic apples and oranges. Old school offline companies like R.L. Polk merely collect data on transactions already made. When a sale of, let’s say, a Ford vehicle is made, tons of data becomes available to the industry that will help Ford and Ford dealerships (and even other companies like GM) understand the demographics of their fleet. Other than the information that goes on a credit score if the vehicle is financed, this is not particularly intrusive to the buyer. It also requires an action to initiate–you must buy something.
There are some similarities, just as apples and oranges hold being fruit in common. Part of the demographic information exchanged under this old “analog” system would be stuff like what zip code you live within, your age, your income. Just like with a tracking cookie, none of this will be connected with your name. Unlike with a tracking cookie, it won’t even be connected with an IP address.
Tracking cookies are initiated as soon as you visit a site that uses them. You don’t have to take an action to initiate them–just go online. After you visit a site that uses them, which is any site that runs ads from a major ad agency such as Google, then you’ll be followed everywhere you go after that.
The results of this tracking is clearly evident. Visit a site that sells women’s shoes, and immediately you start seeing shoe ads, even if you’re visiting a site for auto parts. Example, whenever I’m on FOSS Force I see tons of political ads, even though this is a tech site, because I’m in the habit of visiting political sites during the course of my surfing and Google knows my interests.
The online advertising folks want you to believe it’s somehow not American for you to refuse to give-up your right to privacy so they can make money. It’s bad for business and if your actions are bad for business, then you’re obviously not a patriot–you might even be a thief.
“Consider, for example, the role of commerce – the freedom to engage in which was a fundamental spark to the American Revolution. Although it may not be as apparent as when a customer enters a physical store, visiting a web site is a commercial act, during which a value exchange occurs. Consumers receive content, and in exchange are delivered advertising. The value of the delivered ad is currently calculated based on two essential points of data – where the ad is being delivered, and to whom. By blocking third-party cookies by default, Mozilla is turning off the anonymized but behaviorally relevant “who” signal, thereby reducing the value of most ads. The user effectively has been granted a right to engage in a commercial transaction without anyone knowing anything about that transaction, including the other party to the transaction. This social decision carries costs. By reducing the value of advertising, consumers and businesses will shoulder higher prices, in the form of more ads, more intrusively delivered. Or they will pay more for content. Or they will be asked for more explicitly personal information in return for the content.”
Sorry guys, but the American Revolution wasn’t fought for the freedom to make money nor was the Internet intended to be merely a cash cow for Madison Avenue.
You might think that I’m killing the goose that laid the golden egg since FOSS Force is a site supported by online advertising. Certainly I have very mixed feelings about applications like AdBlock, but I don’t think they’re criminal as does the IAB. I’d obviously rather they not be used. They cost our site money. We work hard supplying content, blah, blah, blah, you know the rest.
However, none of us here would ever support laws regulating or banning programs like AdBlock due to our belief in tech freedom. Your computer belongs to you, you should be able to install any application you want on it. If so many people start blocking ads to make advertising supported sites impossible, so be it. Another business model will have to be developed for content sites like this.
I feel that way and more when it comes to tracking. Some cookies are useful and necessary, for session control and such. Personally, I don’t mind being tracked by the likes of Google. But it should be my decision. I should have the right to opt-in. The onus shouldn’t be on me the user to opt-out.
Having tracking cookies disabled by default in a browser puts power in the hands of the user. It also means that online advertisers can’t take you for granted. They have to offer you an incentive to get you to allow them to follow you around.