Mozilla’s mission in the context of digital advertising

Mozilla is many things, best defined as a global, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing opportunity and innovation on the internet. But we’re also known as a browser vendor and browser vendors are often perceived by the ad tech community only as inconveniences.  As Gregory Cristal puts it in his book Ad Serving Technology, “The browser remains an unknowable force working by its own rules which the whole industry has learned to adapt to over time.”

In my experience, ad tech doesn’t often celebrate the rapid pace of development in the browser space – something that Mozilla kick-started with Firefox in 2004, by the way. Competition among browsers has lead to advances in the Web that are easily overlooked: advances in performance, in interactive content, in graphics and audio, not to mention in user interface design all of which have grown the digital market.  But for all this common interest, browser vendors and ad tech companies have historically had little collaboration.

We want to change that.

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting and just last week Denelle, our SVP of Business and Legal Affairs, took the stage with IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg at the IAB’s event at Mobile World Congress.  When I think about some of the biggest issues facing the ad tech industry that came up in these discussions, questions such as the fight against fraud, viewability, the challenge of mobile and of the appropriate use of data, I feel that the Mozilla project is very well placed to make a positive contribution.

Mozilla’s interest in the Web economy is fundamental to what we do.  The Web is free to implement, free to publish on, is cross platform and offers opportunities for many.  No other medium shares these properties.  As Mitchell puts it, “The World Wide Web is the greatest tool for knowledge sharing and collaboration we have ever seen”.   That’s why Mozilla invests in developing open standards, in fighting censorship, and in advancing the Web on mobile devices, and it’s why we are now becoming actively involved in the digital ad space.  Advertising, after all, is the principal way that this great resource is funded.

Although the Web has gone from a novelty to something we cannot imagine our lives without in under two decades (at least, for those of us who can remember a world before the Web!), we should never take it for granted.  Standards, the platforms and formats that govern large parts of the internet economy, are forming very quickly – so quickly that we might not even think of these things as standards.  These “de facto” standards make their owners very rich and create empires.  20 years ago, Microsoft was that empire.  If you wanted to make application software, it had to run on Windows, because that was where the users were.  And if you wanted to buy a computer that had applications available, you had to buy a Windows PC.  Today, similar power rests with Apple and Google.  These companies have created huge markets and delivered great innovations, but they also exercise huge levels of control.

But the Web is not centrally planned, it has grown organically.  It has very low barriers to entry and light regulation which is a perfect formula for innovation.  

Publishing, letting your audience find you and monetizing that audience through advertising has become the dominant way of publishing online.  We’ve become so used to this model that professional online media is almost entirely dependent on advertising.  We exchange our attention and some information about ourselves for access to content.  But fast-moving, unregulated markets often create externalities, costs we all bear, and having spent my career in digital, I can certainly name a lot of them!  Page design can suffer because of adverts, editorial policy may skew to deliver impressions.  Fraud is rife in online advertising.  And advertising has created a huge secondary market in data about users, often without anyone’s explicit consent.

It’s this market for data that is probably most concerning about our industry today.  As Denelle commented last year, trust should be the currency.  This should be a transparent value exchange.  Users should understand how their data is being used, and have control over that usage and understand what they are getting in exchange for it.  This is all too often not the case.

Browser vendors, browser extension makers and privacy activists have responded to the needs of users by delivering many different approaches to protecting their privacy on the Web.  The W3C first recommended P3P back in 2002, and since then we’ve seen ad blocking browser extensions, tracking protection lists, vigorous debate about third party cookies, and the FTC backing for a Do Not Track (DNT) system.  Mozilla was a major contributor to the DNT mechanism, hoping it would give the ad industry a way to understand and honor a consumer’s choice.  Sadly, we’ve yet to see great uptake across publishers.  We will continue to work in this space, finding ways for consumers to express and to enforce their right to privacy online.

Our commitment to protect users and their data, and deliver them ways to opt out of experiences they do not desire will never waver.  As important as such tools are, we cannot expect to incentivize the ad tech industry solely by being, as Gregory Cristal puts it, an “unknowable force”.  There are parts of the industry which are investing in such harmful measures as canvas fingerprinting or super-cookies. We have to offer better alternatives, and set better standards.

And so when I hear privacy advocates saying that it is the role of the browser to deliver tools for the user to protect their privacy, I agree.  And when I hear Randall Rothenberg saying that browser vendors have a responsibility to our culture and to our economy, I agree.  I do not believe that these aims are in direct conflict.  We need advertising experiences that work for advertisers and publishers, but that also respect the wishes – the agency – of the user.  The user needs to be at the center of the experience, and their desires must be respected in the value exchange.

Facilitating this discussion and bridging the gap between these two groups is a job for Mozilla because this is what we do. We fight for the Web and deliver users sovereignty over their experience.  We’ve proven our ability to move markets in helping the open Web break out from the Windows desktop. We’ve implemented and standardized countless Web technologies. We’ve advocated for open Web video codecs while helping groups move away from less secure, closed technologies such as Flash.  And we create impact for our partners, such as our recent deal with Yahoo! that’s creating the first real movement in the US search market share in years.

I believe the future for digital advertising is fascinating.  The first dot-com boom delivered access to millions of consumers through eCommerce, generating huge advances in making signals of supply and demand more efficient.  “Web 2.0” gave us participation online, as individuals put our creative works online, we connected with each other.  The move to mobile has seen this participation commercialised, as mobile services created micro-producers in a variety of industries.

What’s next?  A glance at what the big internet companies are doing all points to a certain direction: Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Amazon’s Echo point to a future where direct response advertising will be more contextual and directed by the user’s control.  A future that is described by some as “intent casting”, where the user is in control of the demand signal they generate.

But the big question is this: will that future be mediated by the vertical integration of Apple or Microsoft, the horizontal ubiquity of Google and Amazon, or the open market of the Web?  Will it be an open market, or a walled garden?  The Mozilla project is at its best when we create products that embody our values and can bring partners into our community.  And we have to do just that in this space: monetization and advertising on the Web must evolve to respect the user.


3 responses

  1. Jeffrey wrote on :

    It seems that the industry has depended heavily on getting users to click links and buy stuff while the vast majority of us will never do that. Now that companies have realized this, the budget put into click advertisement has gone down dramatically and along with it the money sites generate from the ads.

    Perhaps it’s time to think of new ways of supporting this vast resource. Maybe, advertisement isn’t a healthy means of funding content anyway.

  2. Jeff E wrote on :

    Mozilla is certainly in a unique position to help the ad tech industry in regards to Fraud and Viewability. This can be done while still protecting users and their privacy, etc. Can you explain more in regards to any initiatives you might undertaking here?

    Advising publishers (via an HTTP header or something) that ad blocking is being used would be huge. Doing so would give them 100% certainty, versus some hack to try and determine on their own that will not produce consistent results. Publishers can then treat that request/user however they like. Just like you said, “Advertising, after all, is the principal way that this great resource is funded” — that’s the same for Publishers. The free content they provide is costs money to produce, that’s done via ads. Is this an option?

  3. NicolasWeb wrote on :

    The two first comments of this post show how wide can be the mission to keep a user-centric web :
    – Advertising is maybe no more the better way of funding for the future.
    – Give more info to the publishers, so they can decide to block you content access (instead of innovating in they funding strategy). I would see in that comment that it is a *fair exchange*: at least the publisher should give more control to the users.

    We could even go forward user-centric web funding taking account on opportunities and dangers :
    – More you (help) advertise, more you centralize the Internet and the www
    The actual economic model history on the Internet, is the exchange of personal data for advertising against free access to content. This have prove to be hugely monopolistic and centralize the Internet on a few actors that are now driving it and can decide the rules that apply to the personal data.
    Ad publishers want the more audience so they use the biggest ad platform. We should care about ad platform diversity and how is controlled they personal data policies.

    – There is an emerging alternative to the advertising for funding [1]
    The Makers economy is changing the FOOS economy. It’s a knid of Open Apple : a new economic in traction between hardware and software using Open for the enterprise and the users. And what for the Open Web ? Mozilla is going forward with mobile devices : an opportunity for the foundation and the community ?

    – Advertising is a huge and important treat to independence
    The press that is a need for democracy. From paper to web many newspapers used the freemium model trying to monetize more they audience than the quality, relying on advertisement for funding and powering auto-censorship to keep sustainable.
    This mechanism of control is more subtle than ‘I own your personal data’ and is more powerful/dangerous as it care about the platform not the content. So any switch there can drive a huge amount of people at once.
    Recent studies about the Social Web show that people auto-censor to keep control on they digital identity even saying bad or untrue thinks about them.
    How can Mozilla work with advertisers keeping it’s & it users independence is an important question. The Web is a public good : why not promoting a legal form of business that help advertiser make business with public good as an opportunity not a constraint and take them to support the content producers without interfere in the editorial line ?

    We should really be consistent that going the way, making compromise, we don’t go to the opposite to ours mission and replace ours by other’s mission.

    [1] The makers business model : The principle is to develop an open source hardware product to benefit from the innovation of “makers” interested in the solution. This community becomes a source of innovation and reputation represents a relay. It promotes (and often helps) any crowdfunding campaign, become almost indispensable step for young entrepreneurs in the hardware. The company will then market the finished product or in parts.
    Incubator teams like Haxlr8r believes in the possibility for start-ups to become profitable while leaving open the design of their products.
    Facebook recently announced Facebook Open Compute that gain traction to GAFA’s : Microsoft, HP, Intel, Apple …
    Cossing this, it seems there is an opportunity for big and small companies.