This week, Mozilla announced that its browser Firefox will start blocking all cross-site third-party trackers–the cookies hiding in the background that follow your clicks across the web, reporting your activity to advertisers as you move between websites.
Including these settings, by default, is the best way to protect users from inadvertently giving third parties data about users’ behavior. Just as people tend not to read long privacy policies, they also shouldn’t be expected to change the settings to disable third-party trackers on every single site they visit. As Mozilla’s head of product strategy Nick Nguyen writes on the Mozilla blog, “In the physical world, users wouldn’t expect hundreds of vendors to follow them from store to store, spying on the products they look at or purchase. Users have the same expectations of privacy on the web, and yet in reality, they are tracked wherever they go.” Trackers instituted by the site you’re visiting will remain in place.
Trackers don’t just track you–they also slow download times for websites. Mozilla cites a study by the ad-blocker Ghostery, which found that 55% of the time required to load a website is spent loading third-party trackers. Without these trackers, sites will load faster, making the overall user experience better. Mozilla will be testing how much blocking trackers impact load times in September–if its approach to blocking trackers does reduce load times, it will roll out the same technology to the regular Firefox browser later this year. If you’re interested in trying it out now, you can download Firefox Nightly to see how the features work.
The new features will also protect users from deceptive cookies that create invisible identification fingerprints based on the characteristics of the device you’re using without users’ knowledge and scripts that secretly mine cryptocurrencies on users’ devices without asking for permission. That doesn’t mean you won’t have the option to give advertisers your data if you want to: “Some sites will continue to want user data in exchange for content, but now they will have to ask for it, a positive change for people who up until now had no idea of the value exchange they were asked to make,” Nguyen writes.
It’s important that these changes will be integrated into the Firefox browser by default–something other tech platforms haven’t done. Companies like Apple and YouTube have started rolling out features to address the addictive nature of their interfaces, claiming they are giving users more control over their digital lives. These features are similar to Firefox’s new settings–they’re all in the name of giving users a better experience–but they still require users to dig through their settings to reap the benefits. Mozilla is making the choice that’s best for users automatically. You can opt-out if you want to, but for the many who will never bother to look through their browser settings, they’ll be protected from the get-go.
As more people become aware of the way websites are using data without their knowledge, the culture around privacy and data collection has started to shift, thanks in part to the work of organizations like Mozilla and stricter privacy legislation. According to a recent report from the Reuters Institute, the number of cookies running in the background on the sites you frequent has already dropped significantly since the European data privacy law GDPR came into effect in Europe earlier this year.