Firefox takes the hammer to a favorite tool for online marketers: cross-site tracking

Firefox maker Mozilla today announced some big changes to the browser’s default settings, aimed at protecting users from third-party cookies that can track web users across sites they visit.   

Mozilla today announced that new users who install Firefox will no longer need to seek out the browser setting to enable Enhanced Tracking Protection since the anti-ad-tracking feature will be enabled by default for them. 

Firefox introduced Tracking Protection in Private Browsing mode in 2015 and then in August last year, along with the launch of Firefox 57 or Quantum, announced plans to make “Tracking Protection” — until now an opt-in feature — a default setting.     

As of today, all new Firefox users can expect this to be enabled by default. 

For users who install and download Firefox for the first time, Enhanced Tracking Protection will automatically be on by default as part of the ‘Standard’ setting in the browser and will block known “third-party tracking cookies” according to the Disconnect list, said Dave Camp, SVP of Firefox.   

While Mozilla has gradually been heading in this direction, Apple was already there in 2017 after it introduced its "Intelligent Tracking Protection” (ITP) anti-tracking system for Safari on macOS and iOS. 

Apple recently bolstered this with an alternative model for ad click attribution that prevented Safari users being tracked across multiple sites they visit. That system is still under development and will be released in a future Safari update. 

Firefox users for the most part shouldn’t notice many differences with Enhanced Tracking Protection enabled by default. They will know it is doing something when they visit a site and see a shield icon in the address bar next to the site’s address. There will be a small “i” icon. 

“When you see the shield icon, you should feel safe that Firefox is blocking thousands of companies from your online activity,” said Camp. 

Mozilla is also promising transparency and control features. Users can click on the shield icon, go to Content Blocking, then Cookies. Users can click on an arrow where the Blocking Tracking Cookies label is and should see which companies are using third party cookies and trackers that Firefox has blocked. Users can also whitelist specific sites by using the 'Turn off Block for this Site' button.   

Mozilla’s pointed to a new research paper that was published this month that illustrated cookies produce just a four percent positive impact on revenues for publishers that allow them. 

On a large scale four percent could be meaningful for a publisher, but on the other hand, the addition of cookies gives publishers an average increase of $0.00008 per ad. 

The study makes the case that, for publishers, enabling behavioral targeting of visitors to their sites isn't any more financially advantageous than the publishing industry’s traditional methods of targeting ads based on their own demographic information, such as gender, income, and lifestyle preferences, such as an interest in fitness and health. 

In other words, the automation of ad spending using real-time bidding systems controlled by Facebook and Google may not provide the best outcomes, at least for publishers. Those systems rely on knowing consumers online behaviors, which are partly based on cookie-based tracking. 

For end users, the study’s findings suggest Apple’s ITP changes for Safari is having an impact. The authors note that “Chrome, Explorer, and Firefox are significantly more likely to have a cookie associated, compared to those who use Safari” on desktop machines. On mobile, tracking seems to be a less acute problem. 

Ad-sponsored search giant Google hadn't hasn't yet tackled cross-site tracking with cookies in Chrome. The company did however announce in May that It will preview new features later this year, by changing "how cookies work so that developers need to explicitly specify which cookies are allowed to work across websites".  

Of course, not all online marketing folks agree with the proposition that ad-tracking is undesirable for web users. People could be looking for products they want and companies selling those products would obviously be keen to reach them, one online marketing expert pointed out on Twitter