Mozilla’s “Privacy” Quandry and “Nanny” Response
I believe in privacy. In this digital age I treasure privacy but freely admit I have offered too much personal information online. It’s nearly unavoidable. In light of the recent NSA and IRS scandals, I whole-heartedly believe we should continue to revisit the issue of what “privacy” really means in modern America.
Mozilla’s proposed “cookie clearinghouse” update to its Firefox browser has been touted by the company as privacy issue. If you’ve been following my reporting (here, here, and here) you know that I have a serious problem with Mozilla’s plan to block third-party cookies by default. I always thought they were annoying. I never really liked the idea of being “tracked” by advertisers and often I just turn on my blocker. However, I was unaware at what a vital role they play in the ability of small businesses and blogs like mine to conduct business and earn revenue.
I was also unaware that a “cookie” isn’t nearly as nefarious as I had originally believed. A cookie is simply a text file saved from your browser. It gives no other information than the websites you have visited. Cookies can be erased at any time by the user. This seems like a small thing, but the advertising business that has sprung up around that information is responsible for internet business making up nearly 3.7% of GDP in 2011. That’s huge in an economy that has been suffering through the “summer of recovery” for 5 years now. Blocking these cookies by default (as opposed to letting users choose for themselves) not only drastically changes the economy supported by this type of information gathering, it leaves the decision of who sees what ads/information in the hands of a large corporation run by people with their own natural biases and preferences. In effect, this is Mozilla saying “We know better what you need/want than you do. Trust us… we won’t abuse this power”. Early estimates predict a 15-20% drop-off in internet revenue off the top if they move ahead with this plan. If Mozilla’s tentative partnership with Google influences the tech giant to adopt the same measures the cost could be devastating to small websites and systems like Amber Alert who depend on the third-party cookie system to disseminate their messages and products.
I’m not the only one who sees the potential harm in this move. This nonpartisan issue has attracted the attention of political representatives on both sides of the aisle. Already, four GOP lawmakers, Reps. Mike Pompeo (Kan.), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Walter Jones (N.C.) and Jeff Denham (Calif.) have sent a letter to Mozilla urging it to commit to not blocking third-party cookies by default because it would favor large Web publishers to the detriment of smaller ones; and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill has also expressed her concern over the possible ramifications.
Why fix something that isn’t broken? There is no public outcry for this move, no outrage at the tiny text files that drive internet business. No one is begging for third-party cookies to go away forever. Browser users are responding with their business by continuing to leave Firefox in big numbers and yet Mozilla continues to pursue this issue. Why?
No one knows for sure the exact impact this form of “light” censorship could have, but to my mind that makes this issue all the more alarming.
In an economy where more and more people are losing full-time work and struggling to make ends meet it seems like a bad idea for rich academics in corporate America to be proposing something that may affect the income stream and message delivery system of millions of Americans. We have no proof that this cookie clearinghouse will be harmless, but we have ample proof that the economy of third-party cookies has benefited the prosperity of this nation and small business around the globe. Leaving small businesses/websites to the mercy of larger, corporate websites who can afford to circumvent the cookie clearinghouse seems…cruel. Especially when the understandable concern of privacy is actually not at risk at all.
On Wednesday, July 17th Mozilla will be hosting a tweet chat with CEO Mitchell Baker. I urge anyone who has concerns about this issue to join me in sending her (yes, Mitchell is a “her”) some pointed questions about just why Mozilla wants to take this seemingly small choice out of your hands. The chat takes place at 10:30 a.m. Pacific, 1:30p.m. ET (5:30 UTC for those of you commies!). If you need help forming your tweets, here are some suggestions below (I’ve formatted them to fit into 140 characters). Share with your friends. Mozilla has already responded once to my coverage of this issue. They’re listening. Let’s make some more noise!