Competition should not be weaponized to hobble privacy protections on the open web

Recent privacy initiatives by major tech companies, such as Google’s Chrome Privacy Sandbox (GCPS) and Apple’s App Tracking Transparency, have brought into sharp focus a key underlying question – should we maintain pervasive data collection on the web under the guise of preserving competition?

Mozilla’s answer to this is that the choice between a more competitive or a more privacy-respecting web is a false one and should be scrutinized. Many parties on the Internet, including but also beyond the largest players, have built their business models to depend on extensive user tracking. Because this tracking is so baked into the web ecosystem, closing privacy holes necessarily means limiting various parties’ ability to collect and exploit that data. This ubiquity is not, however, a reason to protect a status quo that harms consumers and society. Rather, it is a reason to move away from that status quo to find and deploy better technology that continues to offer commercial value with better privacy and security properties.

None of this is to say that regulators should not intervene to prevent blatant self-preferencing by large technology companies, including in their advertising services. However, it is equally important that strategically targeted complaints not be used as a trojan horse to prevent privacy measures, such as the deprecation of third party cookies (TPCs) or restricting device identifiers, from being deployed more widely. As an example, bundling legitimate competition scrutiny of the GCPS proposals with the deprecation of third party cookies has led to the indefinite delay of this vital privacy improvement in one of the most commonly used browsers. Both the competition and privacy aspects warranted close attention, but leaning too much in favor of the former has left people unprotected.

Rather than asking regulators to look at the substance of privacy features so they do not favor dominant platforms (and there is undoubtedly work to be done on that front), vested interests have instead managed to spin the issue into one with a questionable end goal – to ensure they retain access to exploitative models of data extraction. This access, however, is coming at the cost of meaningful progress in privacy preserving advertising. Any attempt to curtail access to the unique identifiers by which people are tracked online (cookies or device IDs) is being painted as “yet another example” of BigTech players unfairly exercising dominant power. Mozilla agrees with the overall need for scrutiny of concentrated platforms when it comes to the implementation of such measures. However, we are deeply concerned that the scope creep of these complaints to include privacy protections, such as TPC deprecation which is already practiced elsewhere in the industry, is actively harming consumers.

Instead of standing in the way of privacy protection, the ecosystem should instead be working to create a high baseline of privacy protections and an even playing field for all players. That means foreclosing pervasive data collection for large and small parties alike. In particular, we urge regulators to consider advertising related privacy enhancements by large companies with the following goals:

  • Prevent Self-Preferencing: It is crucial to ensure that dominant platforms aren’t closing privacy holes for small players while leaving those holes in place for themselves. Dominant companies shouldn’t allow their services to exploit data at the platform-level that third party apps or websites can no longer access due to privacy preserving measures.
  • Restricting First Party Data Sharing: Regulatory interventions should limit data sharing within large technology conglomerates which have first party relationships with consumers across a variety of services. Privacy regulations already require companies to be explicit with consumers about who has access to their data, how it is shared, etc. Technology conglomerates conveniently escape these rules because the individual products and services are housed within the same company. Some would suggest that third party tracking identifiers are a means to counterbalance the dominance of large, first party platforms. However, we believe competition regulators can tackle dominance in first party data directly through targeted interventions governing how data can be shared and used within the holding structures of large platforms. This leverages classic competition remedies and is far better than using regulatory authority to prop up an outdated and harmful tracking technology like third party cookies.

Consumer welfare is at the heart of both competition and privacy enforcement, and leaving people’s privacy at risk shouldn’t be a remedy for market domination. Mozilla believes that the development of new technologies and regulations will need to go hand in hand to ensure that the future of the web is both private for consumers and remains a sustainable ecosystem for players of all sizes.