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blog: Don Marti

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Catching up to Safari?

21 June 2017

Earlier this month, Apple Safari pulled ahead of other mainstream browsers in tracking protection. Tracking protection in the browser is no longer a question of should the browser do it, but which browser best protects its users. But Apple's early lead doesn't mean that another browser can't catch up.

Tracking protection is still hard. You have to provide good protection from third-party tracking, which users generally don't want, without breaking legit third-party services such as content delivery networks, single sign-on systems, and shopping carts. Protection is a balance, similar to the problem of filtering spam while delivering legit mail. Just as spam filtering helps enable legit email marketing, tracking protection tends to enable legit advertising that supports journalism and cultural works.

In the long run, just as we have seen with spam filters, it will be more important to make protection hard to predict than to run the perfect protection out of the box. A spam filter, or browser, that always does the same thing will be analyzed and worked around. A mail service that changes policies to respond to current spam runs, or an unpredictable ecosystem of tracking protection add-ons that browser users can install in unpredictable combinations, is likely to be harder.

But most users aren't in the habit of installing add-ons, so browsers will probably have to give them a nudge, like Microsoft Windows does when it nags the user to pick an antivirus package (or did last time I checked.) So the decentralized way to catch up to Apple could end up being something like:

  • When new tracking protection methods show up in the privacy literature, quietly build the needed browser add-on APIs to make it possible for new add-ons to implement them.

  • Do user research to guide the content and timing of nudges. (Some atypical users prefer to be tracked, and should be offered a chance to silence the warnings by affirmatively choosing a do-nothing protection option.)

  • Help users share information about the pros and cons of different tools. If a tool saves lots of bandwidth and battery life but breaks some site's comment form, help the user make the right choice.

  • Sponsor innovation challenges to incentivize development, testing, and promotion of diverse tracking protection tools.

Any surveillance marketer can install and test a copy of Safari, but working around an explosion of tracking protection tools would be harder. How to set priorities when they don't know which tools will get popular?

What about adfraud?

Tracking protection strategies have to take adfraud into account. Marketers have two choices for how to deal with adfraud:

  • flight to quality

  • extra surveillance

Flight to quality is better in the long run. But it's a problem from the point of view of adtech intermediaries because it moves more ad money to high-reputation sites, and the whole point of adtech is to reach big-money eyeballs on cheap sites. Adtech firms would rather see surveillance-heavy responses to adfraud. One way to help shift marketing budgets away from surveillance, and toward flight to quality, is to make the returns on surveillance investments less predictable.

This is possible to do without making value judgments about certain kinds of sites. If you like a site enough to let it see your personal info, you should be able to do it, even if in my humble opinion it's a crappy site. But you can have this option without extending to all crappy sites the confidence that they'll be able to live on leaked data from unaware users.