Advertisers may have a harder time tracking us

Craig Timberg / The Washington Post /

It’s often hard to tell which is the Web’s priority: helping you learn about the world or helping the world — and especially advertisers — learn about you.

But that balance is beginning to shift, to the delight of consumer advocates and the horror of industry groups. Browser makers increasingly are embracing privacy controls that could limit the ability of advertisers to track users, threatening to undermine business models that now support many popular online services.

The development is driven more by market forces than governmental action, as highlighted by the recent announcement that the maker of one of the world’s most popular browsers, Firefox, is experimenting with new restrictions on the use of cookies — bits of computer code that allow companies to monitor users as they move among websites.

The news has sparked a fervent debate about the economic value of online tracking and the importance of cookies to the smooth functioning of the digital world.

On the day of Firefox’s announcement last month, an official from the Interactive Advertising Bureau tweeted that the browser’s maker had launched a “nuclear first strike” against the industry. That prompted fears that Internet companies could respond with more sophisticated tools that would allow tracking to continue or even expand.

“We’re at the risk of an arms race here,” said Peter Swire, a Clinton administration privacy expert who is now an Ohio State University law professor. “This could break the Internet. It interferes with existing browsing modules, and it puts bigger pressure on users to take escalating steps to protect their privacy.”

Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, is a nonprofit group that’s much smaller than other browser makers, such as Google, Microsoft and Apple. Yet its potential impact is outsized because Firefox is used by about 20 percent of the world’s desktop computers, according to NetMarketShare.

Mozilla is testing its new cookie restrictions on a version of Firefox released to about 10,000 users, said Harvey Anderson, vice president and general counsel. No decision has been made on a general release, but he said limiting tracking would make Firefox operate more clearly in the interests of consumers. He cited a February report by Ovum, an industry research group, showing that 68 percent of people using the Internet in 11 countries say they would limit tracking of their Web traffic if they easily could.

“This kind of feature creates a Web that’s more in line with a user’s expectations,” Anderson said.

The changes under consideration for Firefox would allow shopping or news websites, for example, to place cookies on a user’s computer to enable the tracking of preferences for customized service. It would block cookies from sites users never knowingly visited, such as those of the networks that place advertising on sites maintained by news organizations or other groups.

Digital advertisers say that ads targeted by user behavior are effective, allowing baseball fans to see ads for game tickets or people learning Spanish to see ads for travel packages to Mexico. The revenue generated by these online businesses pays for many of the free programs and services that users enjoy.

Browser changes that disrupt online business models would come at a high cost, advertisers say, hitting smaller companies and websites with particular intensity. To survive, these companies may turn to tracking technology that’s harder for browsers to block, such as digital fingerprinting that can use basic information about the location of a computer and the software installed to distinguish it from other machines.