Tracking protection layers and the next-generation browser

(update 17 Mar 2020: Add link to Cookie AutoDelete to replace Self-Destructing Cookies)

Joe Marchese writes, in the Wall Street Journal,

The situation with digital advertising is so dire that the only fix might be to reset. Start at zero. And how do we do that? We create a world where every consumer has an ad blocker. Then, we focus on how to earn consumers’ attention. To ask them to opt into quality advertising rather than dealing with a world where they’re opting out in every way they can.

Marchese is right that the wide-open, completely trackable web browsers of the 1990s are no longer workable on today's Internet. When a browser allows third parties to follow users from site to site, it enables data leakage, fraud, and malware, and makes the web as a medium less trustworthy.

But dumb ad blockers aren't the solution either. If you like reading William Gibson stories today, thank an OMNI Magazine advertiser from the 1980s. Advertising done right can support great photography, reporting, and fiction that would not otherwise exist.

Somehow, the browser needs to both protect sites and users from the problems of intrusive tracking and also protect the power of advertising to support journalism and cultural works. We can get a peek at the browser of the future by looking at what works on the leading browsers and privacy extensions today.

0. Send accurate Do Not Track

Inform sites of the user’s preferences on data sharing. Mainstream browsers already do this, and now that MSIE does not set DNT by default, it's a clear message about what the user intends.

1. Block connections to third-party trackers

Browsers have to be able to avoid connecting to any third-party site that does not comply with user norms. This may take the form of honoring a blocklist, like Tracking Protection for Firefox, monitoring tracking behavior, like Privacy Badger, or both. (In some cases, third-party tracking is gatewayed through a first-party host, so layer 1 protection may need to block URL paths, not just hosts.)

2. Limit data sent to third-party sites

Apple Safari's third-party cookie policy is the best-known example of layer 2 protection. Cookie double keying, where the same tracker will see different values for the same cookie on different sites, is another way to limit third-party data collection. The Crumble extension for Google Chrome appears to implement cookie double-keying.

Layer 2 protection is important in the case of third-party sites that both provide user-visible functionality and permit data leakage. (Privacy Badger uses layer 2, in the form of cookie blocking, for its "yellowlist" domains.)

3 Scramble or delete unsafe data

If a tracking cookie or other identifier does get through, delete or scramble it on leaving the site or later, as the Cookie AutoDelete extension (similar to the old Self-Destructing Cookies) does. This layer of protection matters in two important situations.

  • Clean up browser state after a site visit in which the user turned off layer 1 or 2 protection. When sites ask the user “turn off your ad blocker to see this content” the user is choosing to accept the ads on the page, but is not choosing to leak data to unknown third parties.

  • If a particular cookie or other piece of browser state is discovered to be involved in tracking after it has already been set for some users, clean up existing copies in a way consistent with the user’s preferences, much as antivirus software regularly downloads updates for newly discovered malware.

Bringing it all together

No one browser or extension has all of the pieces today. Persistent users can put together a reasonable protection toolkit with a little downloading and configuration, but for mainstream adoption there is room for a lot of development and testing.

The prize for success, though, is about much more than saving the existing web advertising business from ad blocking. It's about leveling up web advertising from a low-value medium that can't pay for new works, to a higher-value medium that can. For example, today it's hard for authors to earn money from short fiction because the high-revenue ad model of magazines doesn't work on the web. Cut out tracking, and the data leakage, fraud, malware and loss of signal that come with it, and it's a whole new web ad business.

While the ad blocking debate makes a lot of noise, the real action is in improving the browser to enable advertising to pull its weight—starting with enforcing common-sense norms about user tracking.

Don Marti · #