Mozilla Decision Harms More Than Just Advertisers

If cookies get blocked, the Internet will become far more costly to consumers

If technology ideologues don’t start heeding the warnings of the businesses that pay for the Internet’s incredible diversity, consumers worldwide will soon be left holding a bill that they didn’t even know existed.

In late June, Mozilla—maker of the popular Firefox Web browser—announced that it would block the vast majority of third-party cookies for all of its users worldwide. It is a move that carries very little upside for consumers and threatens to destabilize the economic ecosystem on which the modern Internet, and the ad-supported content that is its hallmark, is built.

Cookies are the technology that creates persistence on the Internet. When a website remembers what’s in your virtual shopping cart, or what stories you’ve already read, it’s most likely using some sort of cookie.

For advertisers, cookies are critical to ensuring that Internet users see relevant ads when they browse the Web. A user who priced golf clubs at an online store, for instance, might get an ad for golf equipment or a golf vacation as opposed to a more random offering. Used transparently and responsibly, cookie-driven ads are beneficial to consumers and extremely valuable to content creators who can earn approximately twice as much as they would with random ads. That bump in revenue can be the difference between a sustainable online business and a failed one.

This is what Mozilla is seeking to stop. Under its plan, the cookies that support most interest-based online advertising would be blocked outright, with the notable exception of those maintained by the largest publishers. Many in the technology community are already saying “good riddance” to interest-based advertising, but what they aren’t saying is how they intend to pay for all the free content that such ads support.

If only the very largest companies have the ability to gather data about users to serve relevant ads and measure advertising effectiveness, competition will be dramatically limited, and everybody will lose, big and small.

Free is the model that works on the Internet. Other approaches, such as micropayments, have been tried and for the most part discarded, as users have made it clear that they don’t want to pay for content. In an April Zogby poll, nearly 70 percent of users said that free content was “extremely important” to the overall value of the Internet.

The entire history of the online advertising industry has been about evolving to meet that primary consumer demand. Today, the so-called “long tail” of Internet content thrives, in large part thanks to the existence of a powerful Internet advertising infrastructure that supports the widest possible range of content providers—from the largest consumer websites to some of the smallest niche blogs. 

If the Internet advertising ecosystem is damaged, it is those publishers, and the readers who depend upon them, that will suffer. Paywalls will increasingly go up, and in many cases, the smallest content providers may simply lose the ability to sustain themselves and their sites. A group of 1,000 small Internet companies recently warned Mozilla of this specifically.

To be sure, Mozilla is itself an appealing story: a free software community that created one of the most popular Internet browsers on the planet. But with an estimated 20 percent of the global browser market, its days of being a plucky upstart are long past. When Mozilla makes decisions about which business models should or shouldn’t thrive, it ripples throughout the Internet. And, at this point, the Internet cannot afford for Mozilla to be oblivious to the unintended consequences those decisions cause.