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Monday, February 25, 2013

In the Tracking Wars, It’s Browser Makers vs. Advertisers

Last fall, Microsoft announced that its newest Web browser would allow users to signal whether or not they would like to see targeted advertisements. That was seen in some circles as a clash of corporate titans: a salvo from Microsoft against Google, which is its main rival in the browser market and which has a thriving targeted advertising business.

This past weekend brought a provocative move from Mozilla. It said it would offer a tool to block third-party tracking cookies altogether on its new version of the Firefox browser.

The theater of battle just widened, pitting the advertising industry against browser builders.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry group, fired back immediately. On Twitter, Mike Zaneis, general counsel for the group, called it “a nuclear first strike” against the ad industry. To which Mozila’s chief technology officer, Brendan Eich, countered, also on Twitter: “Agree it’s risky but we have to take some to improve privacy.”

Safari, owned by Apple, already blocks third-party tracking cookies, though it represents a small slice of the browser market. Google was fined heavily by the Federal Trade Commission last year for bypassing the default Apple browser safeguards against tracking.

In a blog post on LinkedIn, Jules Polonetsky, who heads the Future of Privacy Forum, an advocacy group supported in part by Web companies, wrote that while tracking cookies are not illegal, they can alarm consumers because they monitor Web browsing patterns less than transparently. “Consumers seem to think something is being done TO them, instead of FOR them, when they learn about cookies and tracking,” he wrote.

The advertising industry! for its part has long argued that cookies for the purposes of marketing messages are anonymous, and that consumers give up far more precise information to credit card companies, for instance, or supermarkets when they sign up for loyalty cards.

The unfinished argument â€" or nuclear war, if you will â€" is whether behaviorally targeted messages are necessary to support Web content, or whether old-fashioned advertising will do.

The Mozilla patch, which is scheduled to roll out in test mode in April, was developed by a Stanford graduate student, Jonathan Mayer, whose research has previously found how personal identifying information can leak out from Web browsing histories.