Firefox Cookie-Block Is The First Step Toward A Better Tomorrow

sell-siderThe Sell-Sider” is a column written by the sell-side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Jim Spanfeller, CEO, Spanfeller Media Group, a new age media company.

Mozilla recently announced that the next version of Firefox, one of the most popular web browsers in the world, would come with a default setting that would not allow third-party tracking cookies to be installed on users’ machines.

This is the first major step down a road to a better tomorrow for business online, to an age where consumer privacy and corporate transparency is respected and practiced.  By doing what we say and saying what we do – by doing unto others what we want done to us – we will enter into a more trusted ecosystem. Business, information exchange, spontaneous discovery and overall satisfaction will thrive in ways that have become increasingly difficult due to black hat activities perpetrated partly in the name of advertising efficiencies.

The IAB has jumped to protect the currently crippled state of the industry by protesting Mozilla’s move.  As a one-time chairman of the organization, this saddens me to no end.  I feel this way for several reasons.

First, the current promise of ultra-targeted audiences delivered in massively efficient ways is proving to be one of the more empty statements in recent memory.  Every day more data shows that what is supposed to be happening is far from reality.  Ad impressions are not actually in view, targeting data is, on average, 50% inaccurate by some measures (even for characteristics like gender) and, all too often, the use of inferred targeting while solving for low-cost clicks produces cancerous placements for the marketer.  At the end of the day, the three most important players in the ecosystem – the visitor, the content creator and the marketer –  are all severely impaired, or even negatively impacted, by these practices.

Second, the notion that moving toward a more user-controlled, privacy-friendly environment will somehow kill advertising is flat-out ridiculous.  Advertising works. Advertising online works. And more people are spending more time in digital media environments than ever before.   Marketers need to find ways to communicate with prospective consumers.  What’s more, there are numerous first-party and contextual methods that allow for ultra-targeting with data and inference that are exponentially better than what the IAB is trying so hard to protect.

Third, and perhaps most important, we need to respect all the citizens of the digital ecosystem.  If folks intentionally want to share data about themselves, or for that matter, about their organizations, because they see real value in that exchange…then great.  But simply assuming that this is what’s best for the participant is the very height of hubris. I found myself arguing this very point at an industry event a few years ago with a group of smart and successful executives from various ad tech companies. This event was just before Thanksgiving and as the argument reached new heights, I finally said, “Hey, I will tell you what, we are all going to be with close friends and family over the next few days. Why don’t you sit down with a couple of people who you know well and really explain what the issue is? Ask them how they feel about being tracked without their knowledge.” As you might expect, this effectively ended the discussion.

The web grew out of a sense of empowerment for all. We need to get back to that thought process. By doing so, the vast majority of involved parties will be extremely well served, and those who are not will quickly find other avenues to dedicate their talents to and, subsequently, will most likely feel better about themselves.

The IAB has a diverse membership, to be sure, and has done very valuable service for the online world in the past, including leading the charge in setting standards to conduct business by.  But taking a stand to protect a relatively small percentage of that membership is not the way to showcase leadership for the overall organization, nor the industry as a whole.

I applaud the leaders of Mozilla and I hope others will follow their example.

Follow Jim Spanfeller (@JimSpanfeller) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.


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  1. Jim – great analysis and insights. Direct to the point. This move is a way to renew the industry and find new ways of advertising benefitting all in the ecosystem. Although the Dutch policies are rather strict still – we foresee it will bring back creativity in the industry because we need a now road ahead. This is a dead end.

  2. Of course no one WANTS to be tracked but no one WANTS to pay for their favorite content either. The internet has made it possible for advertisers to better target their audience and do so in a manner that allows people to access great services at no cost to them.

    If a TV commercial could figure out how to track the user watching their favorite programming, you can bet they would.

  3. Tory Norcross

    Nice article and I take all of your points on board.

    What confuses me is why we aren’t hearing more from the publishers on this argument. Many smaller publishers will have their ad revenue severely reduced by this and yet I never hear from them.

    And as for transparency, it is the obligation of the publisher to tell the consumer what data is being collected, how it is being used – AND what the consumer is getting in exchange… Free access to content.

    Hearing from the iab and excitable advertisers is fine. I think the argument really has to begin with the publishers.

  4. Arkadiusz Cywinski

    I cannot agree with this article.

    If audience data are inaccurate than no one would use them and definitely would not pay for them if they didn’t work.

    I would also like to hear some arguments why the author thinks that “the visitor, the content creator and the marketer – are all severely impaired”. Without them it’s just a slogan.

    Third, I don’t know why so many people think that targeting methods are substitutes and not complimentary. Oh, and there’s also the issue of “being creative”. The industry needs creativity no matter if third party cookies are available or not. The argument that we should make things more difficult (by not using 3rd party cookies) because then we would try harder on other fields is ridiculous.

  5. I also can’t agree with this piece.

    The crux of this essay’s argument is contained in this paragraph:

    “First, the current promise of ultra-targeted audiences delivered in massively efficient ways is proving to be one of the more empty statements in recent memory. Every day more data shows that what is supposed to be happening is far from reality. Ad impressions are not actually in view, targeting data is, on average, 50% inaccurate by some measures (even for characteristics like gender) and, all too often, the use of inferred targeting while solving for low-cost clicks produces cancerous placements for the marketer. At the end of the day, the three most important players in the ecosystem – the visitor, the content creator and the marketer – are all severely impaired, or even negatively impacted, by these practices.”

    This paragraph contains no actual factual information or references to specific studies.

    My own anecdotal experience as someone whose company is managing thousands of retargeting campaigns for SMBs, brands, and agencies, is that cookie-driven retargeting is one of the few RTB buying strategies that delivers results in a consistent, reliable way. You are welcome to disagree, but please back it up with some specifics.

  6. Jim,

    Your Mozilla sagacity is publishing leadership spot on. All three of your smart points add up to demanding and sculpting greater ad efficiency based upon pubishing targeting principals and refining measurements of engagement, not android magnets attached on the backs of unwilling and innocent content hunters. Thanks Jim for being the voice of reality!

  7. In the U.S. (and I’m sure all over) there are people are so politically extreme to one side or the other that they truly despise their country and are embarrassed by it. Jim, based on this article, I’d put you in that camp but for digital media. This makes you look as though you’re happy that digital media “finally got what it deserved.” Similarly, the folks who think unfettered targeting with no privacy concerns taken into account don’t represent us well either.

    As with anything, any solution that takes us to one extreme or another tends to be bad for all. While it might make for lively commentary and cocktail discussions, views as extreme as this only set us back in the industry. I’ve provided a piece to adexchanger that will hopefully run in the coming days that provides real solutions taking all sides into account. I hope you join me, Jim, in promoting a solution that is win/win rather than win/lose.

  8. Matt Barash

    Jim, we agree! First party data is sacred and protected. Third party data has proven for the most part…fools gold. At the IABLM in Phoenix earlier this month, those of us who attended witnessed a pep rally for a business sitting at an inflection point. For two days we heard from speakers who offered the holy grail of solutions, but what was unfortunately missing from the agenda was the mere mention of the multitude of problems plaguing an industry which point blank is parked in neutral. With innovation comes experimentation, with experimentation comes failure. Four plus years into this, let’s call a spade a spade – has the display industry really innovated and evolved? Or has it just come full circle, with a margin shift to one side and a number of middle men scratching their heads, holding losing lottery tickets and panicking to find a way out. Let’s offer credit to Mozilla for taking a stance and keeping the best interest of their consumer at the forefront of their ability to move the market. Others will follow suit, it’s not a matter of if… but rather when.

  9. The glaring omission is this article is that blocking 3rd party cookies isn’t just blocking 3rd party data, it’s also blocking 3rd party measurement. Want to frequency cap? Sorry, out of luck. Want to track impression based conversions? Sorry, out of luck there too. Not understanding this illustrates a lack of understanding of the industry that we work in. Yes, some vendors can track these metrics without cookies, but those methods generally rely on even more intrusive device fingerprinting.

    User choice is important, what Mozilla is doing, and what Apple has done is not respecting the User, they are making the choice for them.

  10. The industry is definitely moving this way in general.

    Microsoft’s announcement last year about IE’s default DNT setting and Mozilla’s announcement now is all but a drop in the bucket for what’s to come. Many private citizens already routinely delete cookies and/or turn on DNT settings.

    Also, the mobile space is cookie-resistant (can’t say it’s totally cookie-free)…….if you’re not able to target within the mobile space – you’re not reaching people.

    Where’s the silver lining? Cookie-less tracking! Companies like AdTruth (a division of 41st Parameter) and others out there are developing targeting solutions that come without all the baggage the cookie offers.

    The technology may not be as developed, the targeting may not be targeted……but it’s close. With a little more innovation (and money!) the cookie-less tracking systems will be in full-force and will be able to track users on all 3 screens (desktop, mobile and – hold it – even TV).

    So, this type of announcement is only good for the industry as it will spur innovation that end-users, Washington and ad-tech providers can live with.

  11. Joe Garis

    The real issue here is that marketers will always grab and use as much data as is made available to them. To that end if third party audience data is no longer available on the open web, marketers will go to places like Facebook, whom willingly opens up it users demographics, interests, etc for targeting. If your smart, you will see where this is going… Facebook could then become the new primary provider of audience targeting and start to open up its rich set of user information for marketers to use in targeting people across all RTB sources. I would not put it past them, they need the money to grow their stock. My point here is that where Firefox feels it will stop the “problem” by blocking third-party cookies, I’m certain a new solution will soon come to replace it. Where there is demand, someone will fill the need.

  12. C’mon, the Mozilla announcement is clearly, obviously an awful development for the industry. Forget about 3rd party data, 3rd party cookies activate 1st party data for buyers, support long tail publishers, and are key to media measurement.

    In my view, a couple things happen in a world with fewer 3rd party cookies, none of which include an end to user tracking or audience targeting. In my opinion, a couple things will happen instead:

    1. Far from stopping third party tracking or audience targeting, it will push startup companies to develop less transparent mechanisms that are more difficult from which to opt-out, similar to what I think we’ve seen happen in the mobile ecosystem. Not exactly a benefit to the user.

    2. It will concentrate power to the larger publishers out there, especially those with registered user bases, and make more tracking inherently tied to PII. In fact, it makes that PII a tracking asset that could be monetized as a persistent ID – Facebook has kept theirs within their own walled garden so far, but there’s no reason to think others with similar assets would be as responsible.

    3. It will make the digital channel even less efficient than it already is, as all these strategies will be more complicated, require more expensive talent to execute, and come with higher entry costs.

    I think for consumers, (most) publishers, and advertisers alike, the Mozilla development is a huge blow.