In the latest in an ongoing stream of developments surrounding user privacy and the fair usage of cookies online, Mozilla have announced that a new patch will change the default settings to disallow third party cookies in Firefox 22 (we’re currently on version 19). The announcement has received increased attention since Mike Zaneis, Senior Vice President for IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau), tweeted that this would be a “nuclear first strike” against the ad industry. Furthermore, the arrival of this patch comes in the wake of a tumultuous year for user privacy and cookies policy, as European laws detailing fair usage for cookies came into effect back in May 2012, and August saw Google receive the largest FTC fine ever for circumventing Safari’s privacy settings to enable cookies.
To reiterate, this isn’t necessarily a new feature to Firefox. Previous versions of the browser have included the option to block third party cookies in the privacy tab of Firefox’s general options, but the new patch will make this setting the default for Firefox users. So what will the patch mean? Well the short answer is… not a whole lot. It should be made clear that this setting is already in effect within Safari, which similarly disallows third party cookies (unless the source already has a cookie previously set). Additionally, this in no way affects first party cookies, which can still identify a returning user and follow one around the web.
The real significance of the announcement is that it makes it clear how Mozilla is looking to align itself in the coming year. 2012 saw Chrome jump ahead of Internet Explorer as the most popular browser worldwide, and as Chrome’s market share has increased steadily over the last 12 months, IE and Firefox’s market shares have decreased in kind. With this new patch, Firefox is looking to align itself alongside Safari as a more ’privacy-focused’ web browser, while Chrome and (to a lesser extent) Internet Explorer focus on improving the user experience and delivering the best suited content to each user, more or less ignoring the user’s online privacy.
To what extent and identity and our surfing behavior is even truly that concerning (or at least a breach of one’s anonymity). Either way, whether one thinks that delivering users content that’s best suited to them is more important, or strictly protecting privacy is, it’s obvious that allowing third party cookies is the most ideal situation for online advertisers, particularly as browsing begins to converge across platforms and devices, and the possibility to track a user across them becomes more and more real. The real, at present unanswered, question is how advertisers will cope with this loss of data. Will online advertising methods have to quickly evolve? It will certainly be a challenge.
Fittingly, this announcement also ties in with Sony’s new plan to release a Firefox OS phone in 2014. Perhaps this “bombshell” announcement about a cookies default setting – which is definitely far more bark than bite – was merely an attempt to curry favor with the pro-privacy lobby and fan the flames of a debate that continues to discredit Google by highlighting its most glaring flaw.