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Ad marketeers are scared by Mozilla's plan to let users block third-party cookies

Column They see their gravy train threatened
Fri Aug 09 2013, 14:00

ONLINE ADVERTISING MARKETEERS apparently are scared to death that internet users might somehow escape being tracked by them online and then sliced, diced and peddled to advertisers.

The Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) - an overarching organisation comprising the largest media and marketing trade associations in the US including 4As, AAF, ANA, DMA, IAB and NAI - placed a full-page ad in Advertising Age whingeing that the sky will fall if Mozilla lets users block third-party cookies in its Firefox web browser.

The DAA's full-page ad is headlined "Keep Mozilla From Hijacking The Internet" and its text can be downloaded here (PDF).

Despite the fact that online advertising is ubiquitous, distracting, obnoxious and annoying, the DAA ad describes it in positive terms and even paints it as benign. It reads, "Finding stuff you're interested in on the internet is easy these days. That's because advertisers can tailor ads to specific interests through the responsible and transparent use of cookies."

Although we've always thought that internet search engines make it easy to find things on the web that we're interested in, these advertising mavens claim that it's really advertising that makes it all possible. Who knew? Then they have the brass to claim that their use of third-party cookies for tracking users on websites is somehow "responsible and transparent".

The DAA moans that Mozilla plans to destroy the advertising business by enabling users to block third-party cookies. It goes on, "But Mozilla wants to eliminate the same cookies that enable advertisers to reach the right audience, with the right message, at the right time." This blatant piece of self-promotion by this cabal of advertising marketing agencies grossly overstates the poor effectiveness of web tracking to somehow identify receptive customers.

The DAA then sneers at the concept of consumer privacy, alluding darkly to a fog shrouded conspiracy theory involving Mozilla. The ad continues, "Mozilla claims it's in the interest of privacy. Truth is, we believe it's about helping some business models gain a marketplace advantage and reducing competition."

The DAA doesn't say what other business models it thinks Mozilla is promoting, but merely claims that "competition" - meaning its own advertising broker members' ability to fleece advertisers using data points extracted from broad based web tracking and massaged into near incomprehensibility in their back offices - will suffer.

This is just special pleading that hides behind an accusation, and the DAA follows this by claiming that it has a self-regulatory scheme already in place and implemented, saying, "Right now consumers have control over whether they receive interest-based ads through the Digital Advertising Alliance's self-regulatory [programme]."

Has anyone ever heard of that before? Neither have I, but it does exist, although the DAA ad just alludes to it and doesn't make it easy to find.

Information about the DAA self-regulatory programme is available at a DAA website that claims to offer internet users a way to opt-out of cookie tracking, which it euphemistically terms 'online behavioural advertising'. However, it's a beta programme that's still in startup mode with only about two million extremely trusting users signed up so far. Participation by ad marketers, advertisers and websites is entirely voluntary, and there exists no conceivably effective means of enforcement available. I don't consider the prospect of complaining to either the Better Business Bureau or the Direct Marketing Association as real enforcement.

We know what "self-regulation" by industry actually means, and that is no regulation at all. But that's what the DAA proposes that internet users should gladly accept, almost as though it thinks we were all born yesterday.

Furthermore, the advertising industry's self-regulatory programme to enable users to opt-out of third-party cookie tracking is fatally flawed, because it requires users to accept third-party cookies.

I find that it's easier and a lot more effective to simply block cookies by default and accept only those that I really need to use and choose to allow as exceptions. I generally refuse to patronise most websites that insist I must accept third-party cookies.

The full-page ad closes with two more dubious self-seeking statements and an appeal. It reads, "It appears that Mozilla wants to be 'judge and jury' for business models on the net."

Here the DAA claims that giving users the option to block third-party cookies selectively is the same thing as blocking them by default. This is simply specious and scare-mongering.

It then adds, "If cookies are eliminated, it is clear to us that consumers will get a less relevant and diverse internet experience." This is followed by an appeal to send the DAA an email "to tell Mozilla you don't want them hijacking cookies on the internet".

Perhaps the DAA and its member organisations really believe that internet users enjoy being tracked by third-party cookies on many websites that they visit, and are interested in the 'diverse' variety of adverts that clutters those same websites, but I don't imagine for a moment that is actually the case.

I think that rather than complain about Mozilla's plan to enable them to selectively block third-party cookies that infest many websites, most internet users will cheer at the prospect and gladly tell the DAA where it can go with its cookies. µ


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