New Firefox Choosier About Cookies
February 25, 2013

New Firefox Choosier About Who Gets Cookies

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Much of the content on the web would not be available without the help of advertising. Just like they helped make the television and movie industries, advertising agencies play a significant role in funding these web-based ventures. This has become particularly troublesome in the area of online advertising as browsers have begun giving users the opportunity to block these ads, either automatically or manually. Now, Mozilla has said they´ll join Apple in the ranks of companies who believe this blocking should be done automatically.

These kinds of moves to block advertising have one obvious opponent: The advertisers.

A new version of Firefox, set for release this June, will begin using a rather sane approach to managing which sites can track users´ online activities. According to a blog post by Stanford graduate student Jonathan Mayer who contributed his coding expertise to the new Firefox, this change won´t be all that different from how Apple´s Safari browser works.

Websites that users frequently visit will still be able to use tracking cookies that report back to advertisers about who is visiting the website and when. However, those random, stray websites which users stumble upon and do not visit often will have their cookies disabled, blocking them from tracking these users.

“More precisely: If content has a first-party origin, nothing changes,” explains Mayer in his blog post. “Content from a third-party origin only has cookie permissions if its origin already has at least one cookie set.

“In short, the new Firefox policy is a slightly relaxed version of the Safari policy.”

As one might expect, ad-friendly Google has no problem letting advertisers use these cookies to monitor through their Chrome browser, though users are able to adjust these settings. Microsoft, on the other hand, caused waves last summer when it announced the latest version of its browser, Internet Explorer, would support Do Not Track features by default, blocking third-party cookies from monitoring users´ online behavior.

The Do Not Track protocol sends “warnings” to these advertisers, alerting them users with this feature turned on do not wish to see any ads. While having this feature turned on by default seems like a kind and thoughtful gesture on behalf of Microsoft, advertisers called the feature “anti-consumer” and began lobbying against this feature being turned on by default. Microsoft eventually relented and now Internet Explorer does allow most third-party tracking cookies, but still allows users to adjust their settings.

The method used by Apple´s Safari is similar to this new Mozilla maneuver, allowing permission to first-party content cookies. Third-parties can serve up cookies if they already have one cookie set for the user on a website. In other words, third-parties can offer up cookies if a user already trusts the website.

While Firefox´s changes to the way it handles cookies sounds like a completely practical, middle-ground approach, the issue of third-party tracking and cookies isn´t nearly as simple as it sounds. Though a browser can flag a user´s activity asking third-parties not to deliver ads, advertisers have the option to ignore this request. This means that to a certain extent, users will see cookie-sourced ads even if they´ve requested not to.