What Firefox’s anti-tracking update signals about wider pivot-to-privacy trend

When it comes to policing how personal user data is used for ad targeting, it’s the browsers — not the regulators — that are calling the shots.

This week it was Mozilla’s turn, announcing an Enhanced Tracking Protection feature to its latest Firefox browser update, which blocks all third-party cookies by default. Previously, it only did so for new users who downloaded its browser via app or desktop, but this will now extend to all existing users too.

Firefox is far from dominant, accounting for 9.3% of global monthly market share on desktop — second to, but still a far cry from, Google Chrome’s 66% but higher than Apple Safari at 3.6%, according to Netmarketshare. On mobile, Firefox has a minuscule market share accounting for 1.3% of all browsers on mobile devices, while Google Chrome accounts for 64% and Apple Safari 27%.

But when combined with Apple’s strict anti-tracking stance, and the wider pressures of data protection laws, Firefox’s move is enough to cause jitters across the digital ad industry. One particular fear has been compounded by the announcement that Google Chrome will follow suit and block third-party cookies by default.

Both Apple and Mozilla have gone to some lengths to tighten their data privacy stances, issuing multiple updates that prevent any workarounds to third-party ad tracking. To some, browsers are following in Apple’s anti-tracking footsteps as a means to be seen by consumers as the most responsible carriers for their data.

“Data privacy has become an arms race for the browsers,” said Dan Wilson, CEO of London Media Exchange. “There is a lot of window dressing being applied to this. Why do browsers get to determine who does what in terms of privacy? It’s a bit murky — are they to be the arbiter of what privacy is?”

The Firefox update signals an underlying fear that Google will follow suit with Chrome. Google’s Chrome update in May introduced the ability for users to choose whether or not to turn off cookies in the browser. More recently, Google criticized the blanket-blocking approach other browsers. But that isn’t enough to reassure many publishers and ad tech vendors, some of which have predicted Chrome’s eventual default blocking of third-party cookies as “inevitable.”

“Enhanced Tracking Protection from Firefox is not big enough in itself to cause major challenges to the real-time bidding ecosystem in the U.K. due to its share of the market,” said Paul Gubbins, programmatic lead at Unruly. “That said and coupled with Safari also blocking third-party cookies by default, it is starting to set a precedent many fear the biggest browser by share in the U.K. market — Chrome — could soon follow.” Should that happen, it will squeeze the amount of commercially available data — an issue for the whole media supply chain, he added.

Firefox’s update will have some positive effects, like stamping out dodgy ad tech vendors still using arbitrage methods without informing partners or users. But for publishers, it’ll be an unwelcome resource distraction and one which could cause CPM drops if left unchecked.

“Publishers will suffer from this,” said Nickolas Rekeda, CMO of publisher tech vendor MGID. “They must force their monetization partners to be approved by Firefox. It’s the market once again pushing the problem to the publishers and saying your audience from Firefox now can’t be monetized.”

For publishers that rely on programmatic revenue, the overall anti-tracking moves of the browsers spells trouble.

“Many now make more money selling via exchanges than they do via their direct sales teams,” said Gubbins.

However, if demand-side platforms can no longer leverage third-party cookies on their supply, buyers won’t be prepared to pay the same CPMs given won’t be able to match users or to execute basic controls around areas such as reach, frequency or attribution, added Gubbins. Contextual targeting is the current front runner for an alternative to the third-party cookie, but it’s not yet as advanced as audience targeting. While some media agencies, like GroupM have conceded that the industry had become over-reliant on audience targeting, others believe the desire to continue audience targeting will remain.

“If the open internet can’t provide some sort of universal and holistic ID, the buy side will be forced to work with those that can: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon,” added Gubbins.


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