If the news last month that third-party trackers would now be blocked by default in Firefox browsers hardly made a splash, it’s because the nail on the proverbial coffin of HTTP cookies has just been hammered in really, really slowly.
The move still marks an important moment in digital advertising, one that could usher in a more improved and streamlined identifier that eliminates many of the problems with cookies for users and ad companies alike. Cookies were invented in 1994 – long before the introduction of Facebook, Instagram, Gmail and many of the other everyday tools internet users rely on today – as a simple data file that websites could save on a user’s hard drive to remember details, such as logins and browser history, the next time they visited a site.
Since then, cookies have evolved alongside the internet in a complex ecosystem of hundreds of ad-tech companies that engage in data buying and selling, automated and targeted advertising, and omnichannel and multi-device user experiences. Cookies are not only too basic to address the needs of today’s marketers and users – who expect a unified, streamlined experience no matter how they access the internet – but they are also now often blocked.
Mozilla’s release of Firefox 69 in September came with Enhanced Tracking Protection, first introduced as an opt-in feature in October 2018, but now activated by default. It blocks third-party cookies from more than 2,500 domains, and allows users to make exceptions when, for example, a site does not function properly without enabling tracking. It’s the latest in a series of iterative steps by the company, which is locked in competition with the more popular Safari and Chrome browsers to be the trusted way to browse the web. What began as the ability to block trackers in “private browsing” mode in Firefox in 2015 has slowly expanded to where we are today.
Mozilla’s focus on third-party cookies has had a ripple effect beyond its immediate base of more than 255 million monthly active users. Apple stirred up the ad industry by announcing it would block cookies on Safari browsers two years ago, and the latest version of Chrome Canary by Google also offers a way to block third-party cookies.
Advertisers have had years to adjust to the restrictions on trackers. In fact, the Interactive Advertising Bureau released a report in 2014 called “Privacy and Tracking in a Post-Cookie World.” At the time, the group was concerned about “do not track” settings in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser.
“Make no mistake: The cookie was a boon to the internet. It enabled sites to commercialize their offerings by personalizing ads and content according to user interests, undergirded the entirety of e-commerce, and enabled the analytics that have turned individuals into influencers and even media moguls,” Jordan Mitchell, senior vice president of membership and operations at IAB Tech Lab, recently wrote. “But the cookie also broadly fragmented and privatized privacy, while necessitating excessive, redundant HTTP requests from every consumer page view … commencing the data and privacy crises that we see today."
Digital advertisers have an opportunity today to establish a neutral, standardized identifier that could make privacy and consumer controls more streamlined and uniform, while also offering digital advertisers a better way to recognize audiences and tailor experiences to them, Mitchell suggested. Such a system must comply with privacy preferences, be accountable to standardized protocols and operate as a shared utility, he added.
Thanks to Mozilla, the moment is ripe for such a standard to be embraced.
“For years now, hardly a month goes by that we don’t hear negative sentiment regarding HTTP cookies, though they remain the only technical mechanism available within standard internet protocols to support the personalized web experience we expect as consumers, including our privacy preferences,” Mitchell noted. “However, if we eliminate the cookie without a suitable replacement, we constrain the open innovation, competition, access and choice that are indeed the hallmarks of the internet.”