The entire ad industry is close to being outwitted by a Stanford graduate student who volunteers his time to work on tracking policy for Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox web browser.
He may end so called "third party cookie" ad tracking inside that browser.
Jonathan Mayer, who turned off tracking cookies in Firefox when talks with advertisers over whether browsers should track users didn't move quickly enough, has now threatened to end those talks altogether.
This comes from the man that the U.S.'s top adtech lobbyist, Randall Rothenberg, once described as "just a volunteer who hangs around the offices" of Mozilla. (He doesn't actually hang around the office, it turns out.)
That would leave Firefox in a permanent state of blocking advertisers' cookies by default. And it would render years of negotiations pointless.
"There must come a stopping point. There must come a time when we agree to disagree. If we cannot reach consensus by next month, I believe we will have arrived at that time," Mayer wrote in a listserv email to negotiators.
The move might also invite legislation from Congress.
Cookies are the small pieces of tracking software that advertisers drop onto your browser to record what web sites you've looked at. They help advertisers target you better with ads, and they also help web sites handle logins and other basic functions. They're controversial because most people don't know they exist, and because many web sites don't work unless you allow yourself to be tracked.
The entire adtech business favors cookies, with few exceptions.
Currently, Apple's Safari blocks cookies; Microsoft's Internet Explorer 10 signals that its users does not want to be tracked but does not actually block tracking; and Google's Chrome comes with tracking on by default.
AdExchanger called Mayer's position a "cyanide pill" — although who it will kill is unclear. The news site believes that Congress and the FTC are not sympathetic to advertisers who want tracking on by default in browsers:
The general view is that blunt legislation becomes more likely in the event the W3C can't agree on a tech spec for Do Not Track, and that such legislation would run counter to ad industry interests.
However, advertisers are already lobbying Congress to legislate that consumers by required to choose whether they want cookies blocked or not. Under those proposals, tracking would be on by default and consumers would have to choose to turn them off.
Here's Mayer's call to end the talks:
We first met to discuss Do Not Track over 2 years ago. We 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 group remains at an impasse. We have sharpened issues, and we have made some progress on low-hanging fruit. But we still have not resolved our longstanding key disagreements, including: What information can websites collect, retain, and use? What sorts of user interfaces and defaults are compliant, and can websites ignore noncompliant browsers?
Our Last Call deadline is July 2013. That due date was initially January 2012. Then April 2012. Then June 2012. Then October 2012. We are 18 months behind schedule, with no end in sight.
There must come a stopping point. There must come a time when we agree to disagree. If we cannot reach consensus by next month, I believe we will have arrived at that time.
I would make two proposals for next Wednesday's call. First, that we commit to not punting our July deadline. If we have not attained agreement on Last Call documents, we should wind up the working group. Second, that we begin planning a responsible contingency process for winding up the working group if we miss our deadline.
Let me be clear: I am not proposing that we halt our work. I plan to continue collaborating in good faith right up until our deadline. I remain committed to Do Not Track as a uniform, persistent, easy-to-use, and effective control over collection of a consumer's browsing history. I believe a consensus Do Not Track standard is the best possible outcome for all stakeholders in the web ecosystem. But I also believe prudence dictates some planning for foreseeable alternative outcomes.
(Speaking only for himself, as usual.)
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