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.