Thursday, May 28, 2015

Advertising: a sustainable utopia?

Advertising generates $50 billion annually in the US alone, but how much of that figure reflects real value? Approximately ⅓ of click traffic is fraudulent, leading to $10 billion in wasted spending annually. Counting revenue due to fraud towards the value of advertising is like counting money spent on diabetes treatments as part of the GDP -- if those figures went to zero, it would reflect a healthier ecosystem, or healthier people in the diabetes case. For people making money on advertising, it is difficult to accept that a reduction in annual revenue can mean that things are better for everyone else.

Even when ads are displayed to real people, they often create little to no value for the ad creator. According to Google, half of ads are never viewable, not even for a second. In addition, adblocking usage grew by 70% last year, and 41% of people between 18-29 use an adblocker. The advertising industry responds to these trends by making ads increasingly distracting (requiring large amounts of resources and unsafe plugins to run), collecting increasingly large amounts of data, and creating more opportunities for abuse by government agencies and other malicious actors. As Mitchell Baker put it, do we want to live in a house or a fish bowl?

There has to be a better way. Why can’t a person buy and blank out all of the ad space on sites they visit at a deep discount, since targeting machinery would no longer be relevant? Why aren’t subscriptions available as bundle deals, like in streaming video? Solutions like these are hypothetical and will remain so as long we maintain the fiction that the current advertising revenue model is a sustainable utopia.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Tracking Protection for Firefox at Web 2.0 Security and Privacy 2015

Edited to add: I wrote a followup post to address comments here and elsewhere that advertising is working as intended. This paper has been reported incorrectly in several places as being about cookie blocking. Tracking protection blocks all traffic, not just cookies.

My paper with Georgios Kontaxis got best paper award at the Web 2.0 Security and Privacy workshop today! Georgios re-ran the performance evaluations on top news sites and the decrease in page load time with tracking protection enabled is even higher (44%!) than in our Air Mozilla talk last August, due to prevalence of embedded third party content on news sites. You can read the paper here.

This paper is the last artifact of my work at Mozilla, since I left employment there at the beginning of April. I believe that Mozilla can make progress in privacy, but leadership needs to recognize that current advertising practices that enable "free" content are in direct conflict with security, privacy, stability, and performance concerns -- and that Firefox is first and foremost a user-agent, not an industry-agent.

Advertising does not make content free. It merely externalizes the costs in a way that incentivizes malicious or incompetent players to build things like Superfish, infect 1 in 20 machines with ad injection malware, and create sites that require unsafe plugins and take twice as many resources to load, quite expensive in terms of bandwidth, power, and stability.

It will take a major force to disrupt this ecosystem and motivate alternative revenue models. I hope that Mozilla can be that force.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Some links about tracking and security

A roundup of links on tracking, advertising and security. These are not complete or even representative, but may be useful to somebody.

Attitudes towards tracking and surveillance

Advertising and fraud

Bugs

Tracking

Some privacy litigation

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Two Short Stories about Tracking Protection

Here are two slide decks I made about why online tracking is a privacy concern, and a metaphor for how tracking works.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How do I turn on Tracking Protection? Let me count the ways.


I get this question a lot from various people, so it deserves its own post. Here's how to turn on Tracking Protection in Firefox to avoid connecting to known tracking domains from Disconnect's blocklist:
  1. Visit about:config and turn on privacy.trackingprotection.enabled. Because this works Firefox 35 or later, this is my favorite method. In Firefox 37 and later, it also works on Fennec.
  2. On Fennec Nightly, visit Settings > Privacy and select the checkbox "Tracking Protection".
  3. Install Lightbeam and toggle the "Tracking Protection" button in the top-right corner. Check out the difference in visiting only 2 sites with Tracking Protection on and off!
  4. On Firefox Nightly, visit about:config and turn on browser.polaris.enabled. This will enable privacy.trackingprotection.enabled and also show the checkbox for it in about:preferences#privacy, similar to the Fennec screenshot above. Because this only works in Nightly and also requires visiting about:config, it's my least favorite option.
  5. Do any of the above and sign into Firefox Sync. Tracking Protection will be enabled on all of your desktop profiles!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Tracking Protection talk on Air Mozilla

In August 2014, Georgios Kontaxis and I gave a talk on the implementation status of tracking protection in Firefox. At the time the talk was Mozillians only, but now it is public! Please visit Air Mozilla to view the talk, or see the slides below. The implementation status has not changed very much since last August, so most of the information is still pretty accurate.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Tracking Protection in Firefox


On Monday a project that I've been working on was officially announced as part of a larger privacy initiative called Polaris. In case you missed it, there is an experimental tracking protection feature in Firefox Nightly that allows people to avoid being tracked by not communicating with known tracking domains, especially those that do not respect DNT. Our initial blocklist is from Disconnect. As a side effect, blocking resources from tracking domains speeds up page load times on average by 20%. Privacy features rarely coincide with performance benefits, so that's exciting.

Currently, tracking protection is available by turning on browser.polaris.enabled in about:config. If you care about privacy in Firefox and are running Nightly, please give it a try. Requiring about:config changes is quite onerous, but we need your feedback to improve tracking protection. You can read official instructions on how to turn on tracking protection or see the animated gif below (original slide deck here for people who like to advance manually).

Many thanks to everyone who helped get this landed, especially my awesome intern, Georgios Kontaxis, and the team at Disconnect for open sourcing their blocklist.