As the debate over the intersection of consumer privacy and online advertising rages, a recent announcement that browser maker Mozilla would work with Stanford's Center for Internet and Society to create a "cookie clearinghouse" appears to have poured more fuel on the fire.
Debuted by Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich's blog on June 19, and then reiterated in a post on Mozilla's company blog the same day, Mozilla's Alex Fowler claimed the clearinghouse "will provide users of Firefox, Opera and other browsers an independent service to address privacy concerns related to third-party cookies in a rational, trusted, transparent and consistent manner." Read more.
The announcement appeared to take online ad-industry advocates off guard and, last week, the IAB's CEO and president, Randall Rothenberg, responded with a sharply worded post on his organization's blog denouncing the initiative and calling Mozilla's "cookie clearinghouse" plans "a kangaroo court."
AdExchanger spoke to Rothenberg on Friday about the state of the industry's discussion with Mozilla and the industrywide dialogue on consumer privacy and online ads.
AdExchanger: You're very critical of Mozilla in your recent post -- you even call Mozilla "arrogant." Why do you think the conversation has gotten to this level of recrimination?
RANDALL ROTHENBERG: Mozilla is obviously a very factionalized organization. It's like mob rule. It's very difficult if you're a rational player. We like to think of ourselves at IAB as rational players dealing with lots of different constituencies, and trying to use consensus mechanisms to bring them to a sensible point of view. If you are a rational player, it's very difficult to deal with organizations that are structured around mob rule. We have been having some very fruitful conversations with Mozilla, but it may be that we were having conversations with a faction in Mozilla, rather than Mozilla itself. It's not really clear if there is a Mozilla itself, other than the radical players who seem to have the ability to control what does or does not go into the browser.
Can you be more specific about who the radical players are that you're seeing?
Obviously, one of the things that surprised us about this recent announcement (“cookie clearinghouse”) was that we had been led to believe by Mozilla that they were going to come out with a new proposal. Those were the words that were used: a recommendation for a new system that they were inviting feedback for. It was with a great deal of surprise and consternation that we saw the next day that it came with, basically, names attached. The notion of having Alicia McDonald leading this cookie clearinghouse and one of its major players being Jonathan Mayer is ridiculous.
Aleecia, through her incompetent leadership of the "do-not-track negotiations" at W3C, really led to the breakdown of this vitally important consensus process. She was just not capable. She does not have the qualities to lead cross-industry consensus processes. She's already had the opportunity to do that. She already failed at that. The idea of putting her in charge of it again is a nonstarter.
Jonathan Mayer has a long record of making statements about advertising and advertisers and the business and commercial role in the Internet that make him anathema to anybody who's trying to earn any kind of living using the digital supply chain. He's made a number of those comments directly to AdExchanger in interviews like this. (AdExchanger’s most recent interview with Mayer in May 2013 is here.)
He's not a rational player, does not believe in consensus processes, doesn't believe in the idea of consensus itself. He is more … What would you call him? He's a Bolshevik of the Internet world. He's a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. To have a so-called cookie clearinghouse, a Star Chamber court of people like Aleecia McDonald and Jonathan Mayer, it's not just a nonstarter, it's actually appalling. It's an insult to a very large community of people who use the digital-marketing media supply chain to earn their livings.
What's a good starting point for Mozilla to talk to you and the industry? What would you like to see?
We'd like to see Mozilla willing to engage with different stakeholders from the premise that their interests are legitimate interests. They should start with the premise that it is possible to reconcile these interests in ways that create mutual value for all parties. That's number one.
Number two, Mozilla should start with the premise that the first thing they should be in favor of is assuring that as much diverse content as possible is able to flourish in digital environments ... and anything that's inimical to that diversity of content should be looked at with a jaundiced eye.
There's a third premise that they need to accept. That is, fundamentally, browser makers asserting control over content distribution is illegitimate and should be a means of last resort for managing cultural and economic priorities in the digital world. Let me explain what I mean. I put this in my blog post, but I think very few people are focusing on this.
The idea of a browser maker, any browser maker, deciding what content does and does not get through is exactly analogous to a television set manufacturer deciding what programs do or do not get through to your home. That is not a legitimate form of public policy, not a legitimate form of economic policy and not a legitimate form of cultural policy. Those kinds of decisions should be made in multistakeholder-consensus environments. They should not be imposed by technology intermediaries in the content-distribution chain. Do they have a role to play? Yes, absolutely they have a role to play. Their role should be to follow the cultural, economic and political consensus, not to impose their own version of cultural, political and economic consensus on the population.
Very tactically: What is a good starting point? Is it a phone call? Is it a face-to-face meeting?
We have had lots of phone calls and face-to-face meetings. We continue to be surprised by what happens after those phone calls and face-to-face meetings.
Where does the DAA fit here in this discussion?
The DAA is very important. The DAA has been very public on this, and beneficially so. Through the associations that are members of the DAA, as well as the companies that are individually members of the DAA, it represents not just the publishers that we represent, but also represents marketers and agencies and others. We think that [the DAA’s] Lou Mastria has been doing a terrific job. They're part of these discussions.
We don't coordinate with the DAA. What IAB says is representing our members -- but the DAA has a great role to play. Fundamentally, remember … DAA's role is managing the industry's self-regulatory mechanism and working with the Council of Better Business Bureaus to continue to build and improve it. Currently, that DAA self-regulatory program, the About Ads Program, is the only program that exists in the marketplace that allows consumers control over their data in digital advertising environments. It's simple. It has been praised by the White House, the FTC and the Commerce Department.
If you want to understand the ill motives of some of the players, including those that Mozilla has gotten into bed with here, it's that they have taken potshots at the DAA program and attempted to undermine that program even before the program launched. Their interest is not about protecting consumer privacy and certainly not about giving consumers the ability to control how their data is used. Their motive is to undermine commercial use of the Internet and to undermine forms of advertising. That is the driving motivation behind a number of these organizations.
That's why I object to the use of the phrase "privacy advocates" and "privacy zealots." I'm a "privacy advocate" and a "privacy zealot." For God’s sake, I used to work for the Civil Liberties Review. This is not about advocacy of privacy or zealotry around consumer privacy. This is around making sure that the commercial use of the Internet is still viable and that publishers who are dependent on the Internet supply chain for the sale, distribution and monetization of their advertising are still able to use it for those purposes.
How does this discussion with Mozilla relate to Microsoft [and its browser] -- and even Apple and the Safari browser? Do you feel the same way about Microsoft and Apple?
The differences between what Microsoft proposed and began implementing and what Mozilla is proposing to implement are significant, inasmuch as DNT is different than third-party cookie blocking.
Mozilla’s proposal goes several steps further than Microsoft’s. Microsoft required publishers to follow its signals; because few have followed, it’s had very little impact. Mozilla blocks third party cookies by default. That is actually curtailing by “technical imposition” the ability of certain forms of content to get through.
So what Mozilla is saying it intends to do looks to be worse than what Microsoft has done. That said, we came out, all of us, strongly against what Microsoft intended to do, and we were very pleased when the DAA came out with a recommendation that publishers could simply ignore it -- Microsoft's DNT-by-default proposals -- without being penalized under the rules of the DAA program.
There are differences between the two, but there are similarities in that both Microsoft and Mozilla are proposing to take their high oligopoly positions, their dominant positions in the digital media supply chain, and impose their policies on everyone else. That is a fundamentally illegitimate position as I explained before.
With Apple, Safari's already done it. Safari actually has a very small market share in the online display marketplace. While from a policy position it's been extraordinarily annoying, it's always been that way with them. They didn't change their position on this and it doesn't have a lot of impact on the existing online marketing media supply chain. When it comes to mobile, you've got a whole set of different stories. Obviously, Apple is much more powerful in the mobile advertising supply chain than it is on the online display supply chain, but that also happens to be already a generally cookie-less environment. That's about a set of very important future issues that the industry has to deal with and is dealing with. Apple is less important to this current debate -- which is about the giant browser companies with oligopolistic market shares attempting to impose their will on small publishers, small retailers and others who are dependent on the existing supply chain.
In regards to Mozilla's browser and the platform, you've heard of the Ad Block plug-in. How far do you think a browser maker should go in terms of managing the plug-in community?
Mozilla is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, they insist that they are not anti-advertising and they point out, correctly, that most of their revenue comes by extension from some form of advertising, i.e. through its contracts with Google, for example. At the same time, they are the world's largest distributor of ad-blocking software.
They're an organization that says, "We're not anti-advertising. We're not anti-business. We're really all about the consumer experience and consumer control," but yet they not only facilitate things, but actively promote things that are inimical and harmful to a giant swath of the Internet stakeholder community. I'm not just laying down a bunch of industry patter here. I happen to believe very strongly and very ideologically that the vast transformative power of the Internet has been to give voice to the voiceless. That's not all for good and noble and beneficial purposes.
It allows thousands of mommy blogs to exist. It allows thousands of gamers' sites to exist. It allows radical right-wing sites and radical left-wing sites to exist because it's offering opportunities for people to make a couple hundred dollars a month, a couple thousand dollars a month and, occasionally, build a small business out of it.
I think any organization that gets in the way of that and then says, “It's all about consumer control folks. Be cool with us,” is trying to play both sides of the aisle. They are at best not being serious and, at worst, they are being actually somewhat Machiavellian and duplicitous. I leave it for others to determine where Mozilla is in this and where other big technology companies are in this.
We have lived with the browser wars and the concept of browser wars for almost 20 years now. At this point we should be very skeptical of big technology companies saying that the only thing they're trying to do is protect consumers. I just see them over and over again using this noble concept of consumerism and consumer control as a sword to fight competitive battles with other giant companies.
Regarding Ad Block Plus … that's not just a US problem. In some countries like Germany, Ad Block Plus is taking some real publishing companies, and not just giant publishing companies, but magazine companies that I know of that have footprints in other countries, and it's blocking 40% of their ads from getting through -- 40%. I was told that by a CEO of a major publishing company just yesterday. You really do have to question the motives and the mob rule of a company that allows that kind of interference with legitimate business to take place.
Why in the world would a company like Mozilla be so proud of the fact that it blocks 40% of the advertising of legitimate, good publishing companies? I think that's something they should be ashamed of, not proud of. I think that's something they should do everything to eradicate, not something that they should promote. Kind of shrugging their shoulders and saying, "We're just helping consumers exercise control," is actually a shirking of their responsibility to the culture and economy of, not just this country, but others countries as well.