This Wednesday, the developers of Firefox, Mozilla announced that they are moving forward with their plans to block the most common forms of Internet Tracking with their web browser. Their plans could put an end to targeted advertisements for Firefox users – a future that most advertising groups would like to avoid.
Mozilla plans to implement a technology called the “Cookie Clearinghouse” in their browser in the near future once they finish working out the final kinks. This code will attempt to block cookies – the bits of data that websites put in your computer to keep track of who you are – from any third-party sources.
There are cookies in my computer?
Before you go buy an expensive anti-virus suite (or before you open up your computer hungry for baked goods), take a second to consider cookies for what they are. At their simplest, cookies are bits of data that a website sends to your computer to keep track of data. These cookies are stored in your browser, and when you return to that website, they’re sent back to tell the website about your previous visits.
Cookies have a variety of legitimate uses, many of which you likely use already. A website that remembers your log-in information or credit-card information does so using cookies, as does a website that remembers what buttons or links you’ve clicked on in the past. But cookies aren’t always so simple. While cookies can’t carry viruses or malware, they’re commonly used to track the movement of the user by third-parties. These cookies are sent to advertising groups, who use your browsing patterns to select advertisements that are more likely to matter to you. For example, a user who goes to www.WeLoveChocolate.net will be labelled as a likely chocolate consumer, and may see many ads for gourmet foreign chocolates.
Cookies can be disabled or cleared, but this is typically a mixed bag. While erasing all your current cookies or blocking all cookies completely does clear off those third-party trackers, it also prevents websites from remembering you. For many users, the irritation of always being a stranger to your favorite sites is enough to keep cookies on, despite their privacy concerns.
Death to Targeted Advertisements!
Firefox’s planned Cookie Clearinghouse would block only third-party cookies. That means that your commonly visited sites will still remember your relevant information, but most advertising groups won’t be able to easily spy on your interests. But is this necessarily a good thing? It turns out that on the modern web, privacy has its pros and cons.
You see, targeted ads are worth a lot more money than blind ads. Just like broadcast television, the majority internet runs on the money from ads: ads on youtube, ads on facebook, ads on the minor and the major sites alike. These days you probably don’t notice that many of them, even where they pay the bills, because they’re small and few in number. But those few ads can earn a lot of revenue for the website because they’re targeted ads.
In a world where every web browser blocked third-party cookies the way Firefox intends to, targeted ads are practically nonexistent. To generate the revenue that they need to stay afloat, websites have two unsavory options: plaster their site with cheap, blind ads that hurt the look of their site (and even worse: some of them play sound or videos automatically!), or implement a paywall where users are charged directly just to use the website.
The modern web is largely free and beautiful. But that luxury is built on the back of targeted ads and third-party tracking cookies. Mozilla’s plan to block out third-party cookies is a god-send for the privacy-inclined, but if the idea spreads it could change the face of the internet for the worse. Is it worth it? For now, the technology is still in development. But one thing’s for sure: just as it always has in the past, the internet refuses to stay the same for long.