Applying proposed principles for content blocking
04 July 2017
(I work for Mozilla. None of this is secret. None of this is official Mozilla policy. Not speaking for Mozilla here.)
In 2015, Denelle Dixon at Mozilla wrote Proposed Principles for Content Blocking.
The principles are:
Content Neutrality: Content blocking software should focus on addressing potential user needs (such as on performance, security, and privacy) instead of blocking specific types of content (such as advertising).
Transparency & Control: The content blocking software should provide users with transparency and meaningful controls over the needs it is attempting to address.
Openness: Blocking should maintain a level playing field and should block under the same principles regardless of source of the content. Publishers and other content providers should be given ways to participate in an open Web ecosystem, instead of being placed in a permanent penalty box that closes off the Web to their products and services.
See also Nine Principles of Policing by Sir Robert Peel, who wrote,
[T]he police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
Web browser developers have similar responsibilities to those of Peel's ideal police: to build a browser to carry out the user's intent, or, when setting defaults, to understand widely held user norms and implement those, while giving users the affordances to change the defaults if they choose.
The question now is how to apply content blocking principles to today's web environment. Some qualities of today's situation are:
Tracking protection often doesn't have to be perfect, because adfraud. The browser can provide some protection, and influence the market in a positive direction, just by getting legit users below the noise floor of fraudbots.
Tracking protection has the potential to intensify a fingerprinting arms race that's already going on, by forcing more adtech to rely on fingerprinting in place of third-party cookies.
Fraud is bad, but not all anti-fraud is good. Anti-fraud technologies that track users can create the same security risks as other tracking—and enable adtech to keep promising real eyeballs on crappy sites. The "flight to quality" approach to anti-fraud does not share these problems.
Adtech and adfraud can peek at Mozilla's homework, but Mozilla can't see theirs. Open source projects must rely on unpredictable users, not unpredictable platform decisions, to create uncertainty.
Which suggests a few tactics—low-risk ways to apply content blocking principles to address today's adtech/adfraud problems.
Empower WebExtensions developers and users. Much of the tracking protection and anti-fingerprinting magic in Firefox is hidden behind preferences. This makes a lot of sense because it enables developers to integrate their work into the browser in parallel with user testing, and enables Tor Browser to do less patching. IMHO this work is also important to enable users to choose their own balance between privacy/security and breaking legacy sites.
Inform and nudge users who express an interest in privacy. Some users care about privacy, but don't have enough information about how protection choices match up with their expectations. If a user cares enough to turn on Do Not Track, change cookie settings, or install an ad blocker, then try suggesting a tracking protection setting or tool. Don't assume that just because a user has installed an ad blocker with deceptive privacy settings that the user would not choose privacy if asked clearly.
Understand and report on adfraud. Adfraud is more than just fake impressions and clicks. New techniques include attribution fraud: taking advantage of tracking to connect a bogus ad impression to a real sale. The complexity of attribution models makes this hard to track down. (Criteo and Steelhouse settled a lawsuit about this before discovery could reveal much.)
A multi-billion-dollar industry is devoted to spreading a story that minimizes adfraud, while independent research hints at a complex and lucrative adfraud scene. Remember how there were two Methbot stories: Methbot got a bogus block of IP addresses, and Methbot circumvented some widely used anti-fraud scripts. The ad networks dealt with the first one pretty quickly, but the second is still a work in progress.
The more that Internet freedom lovers can help marketers understand adfraud, and related problems such as brand-unsafe ad placements, the more that the content blocking story can be about users, legit sites, and brands dealing with problem tracking, and not just privacy nerds against all web business.