Web browsers consider limiting how much they track users

Video: Many of the cookies placed on our computer to track internet use are put there by sites we’ve never visited. Craig Timburg shows us how these third-party cookies work and explains Firefox’s experiment to stop them.

It’s often hard to tell which is the Web’s priority: helping you learn about the world or helping the world — and especially advertisers — learn about you.

But that balance is beginning to shift, to the delight of consumer advocates and the horror of industry groups. Browser makers increasingly are embracing privacy controls that could limit the ability of advertisers to track ­users, threatening to undermine business models that now support many popular online services.

More tech stories

Real talk about innovations

Real talk about innovations

Just because something is new doesn’t mean it should be touted as an innovation.

Hey Domino’s, stop saying you’re innovative

Hey Domino’s, stop saying you’re innovative

News flash -- replacing a pizza’s crust with breaded chicken breast is not an innovation.

New pressure on Google to crack down on illegal drug sites

New pressure on Google to crack down on illegal drug sites

State attorneys general want the search giant to do more, and some shareholders have filed suit.

The development is driven more by market forces than governmental action, as highlighted by the recent announcement that the maker of one of the world’s most popular browsers, Firefox, is experimenting with new restrictions on the use of cookies — bits of computer code that allow companies to monitor users as they move among Web sites.

The news has sparked a fervent debate about the economic value of online tracking and the importance of cookies to the smooth functioning of the digital world. On the day of Firefox’s announcement last month, an official from the Interactive Advertising Bureau tweeted that the browser’s maker had launched “a nuclear first strike” against the industry.

That prompted fears that Internet companies could respond with more sophisticated tools that would allow tracking to continue or even expand.

“We’re at the risk of an arms race here,” said Peter Swire, a Clinton administration privacy expert who is now an Ohio State University law professor. “This could break the Internet. It interferes with existing browsing models, and it puts bigger pressure on users to take escalating steps to protect their privacy.”

Swire was tapped in November to help resurrect talks aimed at giving consumers an easy way to block tracking of their Web behavior. The initiative, called “Do Not Track” and pushed by the Obama administration, has foundered over deep divisions between Internet industry trade groups and privacy advocates. The two sides have not agreed on what “Do Not Track” even means, much less how it should be implemented.

Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, is a nonprofit group that’s much smaller than other browser makers, such as Google, Microsoft and Apple. Yet its potential impact is outsized because Firefox is used by about 20 percent of the world’s desktop computers, according to NetMarketShare.

Mozilla is testing its new ­cookie restrictions on a version of Firefox released to about 10,000 users, said Harvey Anderson, vice president and general counsel. No decision has been made on a general release, but he said limiting tracking would make Firefox operate more clearly in the in­terests of consumers. He cited a February report by Ovum, an industry research group, showing that 68 percent of people using the Internet in 11 countries say they would limit tracking of their Web traffic if they easily could.

“This kind of feature creates a Web that’s more in line with a user’s expectations,” Anderson said.

The changes under consideration for Firefox would allow shopping or news Web sites, for example, to place cookies on a user’s computer to enable the tracking of preferences for customized service. It would block cookies from sites users never knowingly visited, such as those of the networks that place advertising on sites maintained by news organizations or other groups.

(Such changes would affect advertising on Web sites operated by The Washington Post Co., which is a member of the Inter­active Advertising Bureau.)

Firefox’s changes would mimic how Apple’s Safari browser has long handled cookies. Apple once was a small player in the browser market, but the success of its iPhone and iPad has made Safari the most popular browser on mobile devices.

The biggest player in the desktop browser market, Microsoft, has implemented new privacy controls on its latest generation of Internet Explorer, activating by default a feature that requests ad networks to not track users. The setting has little practical effect because ad networks generally ignore such requests, but the move signaled the rising importance of privacy issues to browser makers.

Digital advertisers say that ads targeted by user behavior are effective, allowing baseball fans to see ads for game tickets or people learning Spanish to see ads for travel packages to Mexico. The revenue generated by these online businesses pays for many of the free programs and services that users enjoy. The Digital Advertising Alliance trade group runs a program allowing users to opt out of most forms of targeted advertising.

Browser changes that disrupt online business models would come at a high cost, advertisers say, hitting smaller companies and Web sites with particular intensity. To survive, these companies may turn to tracking technology that’s harder for browsers to block, such as digital fingerprinting that can use basic information about the location of a computer and the software installed to distinguish it from other machines.

“Innovation absolutely will happen. Work-arounds absolutely will happen. But in the time that takes to happen, a lot of blood will be left on the tracks,” said Randall Rothenberg, president and chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau. (It was the group’s general counsel, Mike Zaneis, who tweeted about a “nuclear first strike.”)

Anderson said Mozilla takes such concerns seriously and would consider altering the proposed cookie restrictions to make sure they don’t unfairly skew the digital advertising market. Some of the biggest players in online advertising are Facebook, Yahoo and Google, but they probably would avoid the kinds of restrictions Firefox is considering because of an exception that allows cookies to be placed by sites users voluntarily visit.

The role of Google, which gets most of its revenue from advertising and has been criticized in recent years for its approach to personal privacy, has drawn particular attention from those pushing for greater controls. Google’s Chrome browser has features that allow users to limit tracking or opt out altogether from targeted advertising, but the company is not publicly considering the more aggressive actions taken by Apple or Microsoft and under consideration by Mozilla.

“We’ll continue working with [the] industry on a common approach to responding to the Do Not Track feature,” Google spokesman Chris Gaither said.

As Web traffic increasingly shifts to mobile devices, Google’s role is likely to grow. Smartphones based on its Android operating system are the most popular in the world. Mobile devices — and the browsers made for them — generally have fewer privacy controls than desktop or laptop computers.

Some analysts say the intensity of the debate gives Internet advertisers an opportunity to make a public case for the value of tracking before browsers limit it further. Shopping Web sites, for example, use cookies to recommend books or new clothes to regular visitors and to allow them to easily track orders without signing in for each visit.

“There’s a risk that the industry will see this as an opportunity to escalate, and that will lead down a rat hole,” said Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, an industry-supported think tank. “It’s fine for tracking to come out into the sunlight and for companies to realize that if all you’re trying to do is sell people stuff, most people are cool with that so long as they believe people are trying to do things for them rather than to them.”

Sign up today to receive #thecircuit, a daily roundup of the latest tech policy news from Washington and how it is shaping business, entertainment and science.

Read what others are saying