IAB Vs Mozilla: Randall Rothenberg Takes The Gloves Off

randall-ceoAs 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.

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  1. I find this to be very disconcerting about the IAB and its senior leadership – Per Mr Rothenberg from today’s article -and I quote = “The notion of having Alicia McDonald leading this cookie clearinghouse and one of its major players being Jonathan Mayer is ridiculous.” — To me that doesn’t sound like compromise which has been the whole issue with the IAB/DAA/NAI its either their way or the highway – So lets look at the facts – Do Not Track is over 2 years old. They have now held 10 in-person meetings and 78 conference calls. We have exchanged 7,148 emails. And those boggling figures reflect just the official fora.
    The Last Call deadline is July 2013. That due date was initially January 2012. Then April 2012. Then June 2012. Then October 2012. (Quoted from Adexchanger Jun 14, 2013) thats over 19 Months now!!! There are issues on both sides and this infighting is doing nothing but harm to both the consumer and the online advertising companies. In the end the consumer can use a 3rd party plug in to any browser and just totally bypass advertising…

  2. I wonder how Mr. Rothenberg can say all this with a straight face. I think the key misunderstanding is the assertion of the completely opaque surveillance-industrial complex as “legitimate business”. The recent “self-regulatory” scheme by the ad industry focuses only on removing the symptom of *targeting*, rather than curing the disease of opaque user *tracking* and data aggregation. What a joke. IAB, NAI, et al absolutely do not want to have to persuade internet users about the value of ads and targeted ads (and the flip side of that – extensive personal data aggregation). They’d rather keep it all under the radar via “consensus” so consumers don’t know how extensive the data collection, aggrergation, sharing, and abuse is. The end result given the ad industry’s complete failure to either truly self-regulate or even compromise, is that users will block ads and trackers and support business models other than the secret commercial dossier (and therefore also govermnet dossier, BTW) model. Mr. Rothenberg mentions “Internet stakeholders”. By far, users make up the bulk of those stakeholders, but they are absolutely NOT represented at all by the words and deeds of the ad industry. Users – citizens and consumers – have the right to free speech and association on the internet, and the right to privacy, to exercise as they choose. The ad industry has made it extremely difficult for consumers to exercise the full range of choices.

  3. Yoav Arnstein

    First, i find the analogy to TV ridiculous. Here is another version – what if TV manufacturers introduced a highly invisible cameras that streamed people watching TV while in their underwear?

    Second, if Mozilla’s decision is so detrimental to the ad eco system, please will the CEOs of AOL, Yahoo!, NY Times etc step forward and announce that their web pages will not be shown on Mozilla browsers.

    The reality, in my opinion, is that our industry is dependent on basic cookie driven functionality such as frequency capping and some measurement tools provided by the likes of Nielsen and Comscore. This drives majority of brand spend and is operationalized by about 20 to 30 ad management platforms from the buy and sell side.

    For the rest, I would recommend that the IAB spends less time battling and discussing with browser vendors and congress and spend more time on regulating the usage of cookies by different ad tech and data vendors in our space.

    A part of me suspects that we just got used to the luxury of using infinite amount of tracking platforms. I trust we will figure out a way to continue and grow our business also under more limiting conditions. However, the IAB will need to lead the way of giving us incentive to learn and be more cookie-modest.

  4. While Mr. Rothenberg’s words are strong, I support his intent. Advertising is a good thing for the consumer and for web sites. Everyone wins with the content they receive for free. Any effort to standardize needs to have a broad representation at the table, not just one organization.

  5. NickD

    Interesting piece – and really quite a surprise to see such an important figure in the wider discussions using such strong language. One has to wonder if it’s really helpful at this stage: right or wrong, Mozilla is in the position of having a large, loyal user base, and so can do whatever it feels it should. Calling their leadership names may not help…
    In reference to this comment:
    “IAB, NAI, et al absolutely do not want to have to persuade internet users about the value of ads and targeted ads (and the flip side of that – extensive personal data aggregation). They’d rather keep it all under the radar via “consensus” so consumers don’t know how extensive the data collection, aggrergation, sharing, and abuse is.”
    …one has to wonder exactly what the proposed alternative is. A roadshow explaining how ads pay for free content online, and that everything has a price? Consumers are anti ads in principle, so it’s tricky to make the case; yet online content as we know it will not be available about ads.

  6. Responses to David Smith Post:
    David the unfortunate thing is that this “Everybody Win’s” with free content doesn’t cut it anymore in 2013. That was a good statement of the internet in the early 2000’s with the style of online advertisement that was mostly 1st party cookie based and the worst one got was pop-ups (which were all blocked by the browsers in 2005). But in 2013 with so many online advertising companies being able to pin point a unique individuals no matter the device (or so they claim) there has to be a time to stop the noise and re-evaluate. No one I have talked to on both sides of the issue wants to stop the world of “Online Advertising” or take away cash from the publishers.
    What is desired is by the consumer is to gain control of how they are tracked and what actions can be traced to them. I think that’s a pretty simple concept for all of us to embrace especially after the PRISM.
    Today already there are programs that can be used to pretty much wipe out online cookie and machine based advertising and one of them is from Evidon (an IAB Associate Members) which is Ghostery. So the question is, if Evidon can block ad’s as an IAB member and then sell that information isn’t that a far worse then having the end user set up their browser set to accept certain types of online advertising and to have a neutral 3rd party in charge of the process?
    To this date not one individual has explain why the default setting should be to accept online advertising?

  7. Mozilla will do what Mozilla wants. They’re completely within their rights to do so, and while it may cause chaos for an ecosystem of ad technology vendors, it’s completely their call. They are taking a moral stance that is frankly quite defensible. I’m actually surprised it’s taken them this long to do it. My only question is how long it takes for Microsoft to do the same – my guess is not too long. Google may well follow suit, as it would strengthen their position ultimately.


    First party cookies can certainly be used (and are) for tracking and ad targeting, and can be synchronized across vendors on behalf of a publisher or advertiser. There are some technical hurdles that vendors have to sort out, mostly to handle doing all this in a scalable way, but despite concerns – it’s possible. It won’t happen in a week, but it shouldn’t take a year. First party cookie tracking (even with synchronization) is much more ethically defensible than 3rd party cookies – as there is a direct relationship with a publisher or advertiser that is driving the interaction.

    Facebook, Google, Amazon and/or other large players will certainly figure out how to take advantage of this situation to provide value to advertisers. I can think of a few dozen ways that they can do so.

    Fingerprinting is of course an issue that is as complex and fraught with ethical issues as 3rd party cookies – but it is an alternative in use by many parties already.

    Many users have static IP addresses (or IP addresses that are not officially static but that rarely change). This is perhaps more useful technically for fingerprinters – but ultimately the whole issue is moot, because…

    IPV6 is coming – it’s just going to be a few years before there’s enough adoption of IPV6 to replace cookies. Essentially IPV6 gives every computer and every device a static permanent unique identifier. At the point where enough adoption is picked up, this will replace cookies, fingerprinting and every other form of tracking ID. But we’re years away still.

    I’ll write more about this shortly, but I want people to stop the hand wringing and the rhetoric and talk about how we can move forward. Because browsers blocking 3rd party cookies is inevitable as far as I can see.

    Oh – by the way, my suggestion to Mozilla… Rather than blocking 3rd party cookies completely, it would be fantastic if they could leave them active for each session. Blowing them away after each session would keep the market from building 3rd party profiles, but would keep some very nice convenience items intact: Namely frequency capping within a session – so that users don’t have to see the same ad 10 times. It also would help with conversion tracking for DR advertisers, since DR advertisers typically only care about conversions that happen within an hour of a click (whole bunch of reasons that’s stupid, but hey).

  8. Adam Tuttle

    Eric nails it once again.

    The IAB is simply doing what lobbying organizations do, protect their members business interests. I do think Rothenberg could have played his hand a bit more strategically but then again, he’s got a lot of people talking and that’s a good thing. If there is movement… But there’s a bit too much Chicken Little going on around this issue.

    The argument that 3rd party cookies are necessary is really poor. They’re not. Safari has blocked 3rd party cookies for its entire life, and the world is still turning for advertisers and publishers and the millions of people who use Apple products.

    The underlying fact is that most people dont like to be tracked and profiled. Especially by companies and parties whom they have no relationship with or knowledge of, let alone control over… The sooner we realize this the sooner we can build report with consumers and not frighten them with hyperbole.