In January, Mozilla announced plans to add a "Do Not Track" feature to Firefox, a tool that would allow users to opt out from having advertisers and other sites track their web-surfing habits. As Mozilla has readily admitted, the feature is far from perfect: Backwardly, tracking companies would actually have to agree not to monitor a user's browsing patterns, even once he or she opts out.
However, according to Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs, that hasn't stopped the feature from ruffling the feathers of advertisers, who, despite serious public concerns over privacy, depend on personal user data to boost the value of their ads.
At a meeting with ad executives after introducing "Do Not Track," Kovacs says reaction to the feature was wholly negative.
"Their first posture toward us was, 'You're breaking the web. It's an economic model,'" Kovacs recounts. "'If you do this, you're single-handedly breaking the web. It'll be a great place for a non-profit, but you don't understand the web.'"
Kovacs couldn't believe what he was hearing. "I said, 'So you're telling me your entire business model is based on your users not knowing what you're doing with them? Is that how it works?'" Kovacs relates. "There was stunned silence in the room. When there was no reaction, I said, 'I'll assume that's a no. So then your reaction must be that you don't think you can create an experience great enough that they'll actually overtly subscribe to it. Is that true?'"
"I said, 'So what else do we have to talk about? Why don't we talk about how we solve this problem?'" Kovacs says.
The Mozilla chief acknowledges that the system still needs work (for one, it still needs advertisers like the ones in that meeting to agree to respect the "Do Not Track" feature), and stresses that it's just "one approach" to addressing privacy concerns on the web. "It gives the user the opportunity to put their hand up and say, 'Don't track me,'" Kovacs says. "If our 450 million [users] put up their hands, someone's going to listen: governments are going to listen, policy makers are going to listen, ad networks are going to listen."
At the very least, Kovacs hopes the feature will help jump-start the "public discourse" on the issue. "You should care—we can't sit as passengers in this," he says.
And it's not that Kovacs is entirely against tracking online behavior. "We just want the user to know, and then choose. When I go to Netflix, I want a recommendation—I want it to track me," he says. "I just don't want them to pass along all my preferences and behaviors to other people that I don't know."
"There's a line here that we need to clarify," he adds.