Mozilla should avoid “scaremonger” tactics and focus more on cookie education, say experts on Lightbeam online tracking tool launch

Industry experts have expressed disappointment over Mozilla’s handling of the launch of Lightbeam, its online tracking tool for Firefox, with some saying it is using “scaremonger” tactics rather than educating people on the commercial use of online tracking and the nuances between different cookie types.

The not-for-profit browser maker revealed the new Firefox add-on last week as the latest iteration of its ongoing strategy to “shine a spotlight on online data tracking” to help people understand the web around them.

In a blog post it said: “While revelations about government surveillance continue to stun people around the world, there’s another area of online data collection with its own complicated transparency challenges that remains important to users. And that’s the diverse range of third-party companies that shape so much of our online experiences today from advertising to social sharing to personalisation.

“Third parties are an integral part of the way the Internet works today. However, when we’re unable to understand the value these companies provide and make informed choices about their data collection practices, the result is a steady erosion of trust for all stakeholders.”

However, the launch has triggered mixed feelings from the industry, with many believing Mozilla has neglected to educate consumers on the benefits of different cookies types, which could have detrimental effects on both advertisers and publishers if left unchecked.

Speaking to The Drum John Barnes, managing director of digital and tech at Incisive Media and chairman of the Association of Online Publishers said Mozilla is being “disingenuous” with its message, which could lead to consumers “blind blocking” all ads, which will harm publisher revenues and rob consumers of free, premium, online content in the long term.

“I’m disappointed with Firefox’s lack of understanding about the commercial realities of the internet and the role premium publishers have to play in it,” he said.

“The first article they wrote showed they wanted to block all first-party cookies and call them third-party cookies. But if they treat publishers that have a trusted relationship with their users in the same way as an ad network that’s not very reasonable.

“If it is [Lightbeam] supported [by consumers] then won’t Firefox effectively end up controlling what they can and can’t see? It may be not-for-profit but it is trying to gain market share off Google and Apple, so is it a matter of swapping one evil for another?” he added.

Barnes cited an extract from one of The Guardian’s articles on the release of Lightbeam in which it wrote that the launch was described as a "watershed moment" by Mozilla, which is hoping to capitalise on growing awareness among internet users of how their online activities are tracked for commercial purposes.

“Obviously awareness and understanding are very different things and this is the issue about education in a nutshell, just look up the definitions of awareness and understanding and it is then very clear that Mozilla should be educating rather than just capitalising growing awareness," said Barnes.

His comments chimed with other industry experts including Alex Tait, group head of e-commerce for Arcadia Group and former chair of the digital, direct and data action group for ISBA, who said: “Lightbeam is an interesting resource that will allow users to understand how cookies power much of the web. It should help towards some of the principles the industry has been working towards especially user choice and education.

“However, it would be useful for users to know additional context on first and third-party cookies. One example would be that the third-party cookie tracking capability will also often pick up cookies dropped from sites you have visited, aimed at improving user experience as well as those purely used by the advertising ecosystem, for example, analytics, ratings and reviews and live chat.”

Nick Stringer, head of regulatory affairs at the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) said the body welcomes the release, along with all tools or programmes which increase transparency for consumers on data collection and use.

But he added that it is important transparency and control go hand in hand with education, and that people are taught about the use and benefits not just the technology itself, which may frighten or overwhelm if not fully understood.

“There is this almost obsession in our sector to talk about technology and cookies, and if you go outside our sector and talk to an average person they don’t know what these things are, so we need to make them understand."

“Browser-based tools like this are a good thing – let people know what is happening when they visit sites – but that must go hand in hand with education so people don’t get frightened or obsessed with the technology but understand what it does and how it helps them in their everyday lives,” he said.

Meanwhile agencies have expressed concern over the rise of products like Lightbeam and other tools such as AdBlock, and their potential knock-on effect to advertisers. Aegis Media-owned iProspect’s head of performance products and global clients for EMEA Adrian Cutler, said that tools like Lightbeam could lead to marketing and advertising costs surging because advertisers are forced to return to more blanket-style targeting.

“They [Mozilla] haven’t thought about the bigger impact. The danger is that this won’t just tell you about the third-party cookies, it will show the first-party cookies which are put on there by the companies themselves to understand their consumers better.

"That is what fires me up more – the fact it could impact the first-party cookies, and that means individual companies that had great remarketing plans will have to adopt more blanket-style media trying to target everything, which costs more. That then means clients will have to add that cost to their overheads, which means individual products costs will go up too.

“Cookies are getting lumped into one basket. Most people online don’t realise what is good retargeting and what is blanket ‘trying to catch your emails’. And when you read things like the NSA security issues in the news and then something like this comes out, you think ‘I’m going to block all my cookies’. But then they won’t get the more relevant, quality ads. It undermines the ad industry and takes us back to a darker age when you have to target everything and you don’t know which parts of your media budget are working,” he said.

Others believe the Mozilla launch signals a forthcoming debate around the future of cookies. DigitasLbi’s head of media innovation Andrew Girdwood said the news is a “snapshot” of what could become “the big story” of 2014.

“The cookie has become a bit of an endangered life form. We have now recently learned that Google, Microsoft and Facebook are all developing alternatives to cookies, with much of the reason being down to the fact they don’t work well across devices like mobile, but that is unlikely to go down well with Firefox and Mozilla.

“Right now cookies are controlled by the web browser – they decide who gets tracked and who doesn’t – that’s their power. Right now the browsers control the cookies and the cookies control the tracking. Mozilla is definitely trying to be pro-privacy but it is also incentivised to not lose control of tracking to somewhere else,” he added.

Mozilla was unavailable for comment at the time of this article's publication.

Lightbeam was launched at this year’s MozFest, Mozilla’s largest public-facing event, which took place on 25 October.

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