Expecting privacy while demanding personalization

Tristan Nitot

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A recent study by Pew Internet has shown that a very large number of Internet users are concerned about their privacy when going online:

68% say “I’m NOT OKAY with targeted advertising because I don’t like having my online behavior tracked and analyzed”.

It’s tempting, at first, to consider that Mozilla should do everything possible to protect users’ privacy by having Firefox be as “stealth” as possible when browsing.

However, things are more complex than this. Privacy is just one side of the proverbial coin. On the other side of the coin is personalization of the browsing experience.

Online shopping is one of the most obvious reasons why a website would want to track users: while shopping online is similar to browsing a physical catalog at first, as soon as you add something to the shopping cart, the website has to show your own shopping cart with the items you have picked, not a generic cart. Then the website will make suggestions on what you might be interested in. Personalization has just kicked in: the website you’re browsing is offering a tailored experience, and users visiting the same page will see something slightly different.

Social Networks are another class of websites where personalization is important, even central to the experience. These social networks can be addictive because they’re all about the member and her “friends”. No one would visit Facebook and Twitter if the pages they displayed where the same to everyone: instead of relevant information from your contacts, you would see a firehose of information in many different languages, mostly from people you don’t know. Not exactly a fun experience!

So on one hand, a vast majority of people refuse to be tracked, yet on the other hand most people enjoy the fun and efficiency brought by personalization, which is enabled by user tracking.

Mozilla’s position on this topic is simple. We’re a not-for-profit organization standing on the side of the users, so we think that people should be in control. Users should be able to decide when they are tracked, when they are not, and what is being done with the data gathered by websites. This is what we call, at Mozilla, User Sovereignty. In my next post, I’ll describe in more detail what Mozilla does to bring it to users.

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