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Firefox Broke Analytics and Social Media

Benjamin CB

8/29/2019 3:30 PM

Analytics Firefox Mozilla Analysis News

What's changing, why it's a problem and how to respond

Digital marketers spend a lot of time looking at data to understand trends and changes on their websites. During the latter half of 2019, they'll begin noticing a 5% to 12% reduction in visitors (sources: stetic and browserstats).

At least one of the reasons is Mozilla's decision to disable many popular analytics solutions by default. Firefox users will need to go into the settings to re-enable analytics solutions. Many won't even know it's happening.

content blocking options
Content blocking options - two levels into Firefox settings - includes trackers

Firefox users will see a shield icon in the top left of the address bar. When selected this icon will provide information about which analytics solutions and cookies are being blocked.

firefox shield icon
Firefox's shield icon pop-up showing trackers and cookies for 51Degrees.com

Selecting the trackers section displays a list of the specific trackers blocked.

social media and analytics solution list
A list of the social media and analytics solutions blocked by Firefox from 51Degrees.com

Users have the option to unblock all trackers and cookies should they wish. 51Degrees doubt many users will be aware of the feature, or if they will have chosen Firefox for it's supposed enhanced privacy features. As a result, analytics solutions which rely on data will stop receiving the majority of data from Firefox users.

Disconnect.me

How does Mozilla work out which analytics tools to block? They rely on a list maintained by disconnect.me. The list is maintained by a community who act as judge and jury when it comes to deciding which companies are included or excluded from the list.

Adblocking 2.0?

Several years ago Adblockers arrived on the web. The advertising industry were up in arms because much of the web is funded by advertising and their revenue models were threatened. Enabling users to remove advertising broke the value exchange between user and publisher. The dominant players such as Facebook, Google and increasingly Amazon were largely unaffected due to their scale. Many publishers saw double-digit revenue decline.

Adblocker vendors argued users wouldn't need to use their product if advertising was fast and relevant. Publishers and advertisers embarked on a campaign to remind users of the value exchange, many prevented users from viewing their content if an Adblocker was detected.

Privacy Laws

GDPR and a host of other laws and regulations now exist to protect and inform web users. Regulators have the resources and will to drive compliance. Businesses have an incentive to comply. No reputable business would wish to do otherwise.

Users visiting a GDPR compliant website receive a notification on the first visit informing them of the third parties involved in the transaction. They receive information about the data which is shared and why. They have the option to gain visibility of that data and have it removed. Lawyers, regulators and the industry spent many years creating the legislation involved. It is well thought through, even if not to everyone's liking.

SSL is the Model

SSL is an internet standard that protects web users and businesses from transacting with fraudulent parties or malicious actors gaining visibility of information they shouldn't. It works amazingly well for browser vendors, website operators, and web users.

Mozilla, and other web browser vendors, could have formed a similar standard to validate websites compliance with GDPR (or other laws). A mixture of user feedback, algorithms, and web sites paying a small audit fee could be used. Maybe they will.

Just like SSL, Firefox's shield icon could be replaced with a red, amber or green indicator to advise if the site is compliant, or a warning could appear if the site was in blatant violation. Such a warning could be modelled on the one used for web sites with invalid SSL certificates. Users could then decide whether to proceed with or without tracker or cookie blocking enabled.

ssl certificate warning
SSL certificate warning used to advise users on security before accessing a website.

In doing so Firefox and disconnect.me would avoid the unenviable position of being an arbitrator of what is and is not acceptable. They would inform users and provide the tools to do something about it.

Choices

The storm around who should and should not do what is only just beginning. Website operators have four choices available to them.

1. Adjust

Accept the change in approach from Mozilla - and other browser vendors - adjusting web traffic analytics accordingly.

2. Stop Analytics

Reduce reliance on social media and analytics products. The people employed to use these tools could be deployed elsewhere. Improving the website and growing visitors wasn't that important after all. Hardly a realistic option.

3. Modify Consent

The ubiquitous privacy and consent notification dialogue could be modified to block users who do not disable blocking. Unlike advertising the impact to a website operator of not having social media and analytics information is less clear to the user. It's likely to become a jarring experience which is worse than the loss of analytics data or social media sharing options.

4. Go Server-Side

A more practical alternative is to go server-side. Mozilla can only do what they do because so many web developers deployed an ever-increasing amount of JavaScript and third party 'tags' to create their websites. The result is publicly visible and easy for others to interfere with. Shifting social media and analytics to the web server makes them technically invisible to the outside world. They become an unblockable part of the web page.

Server-side implementations will resolve the problem once and for all. Transparent privacy policies and consent are all still required but remain within the exclusive control of the website operator. Such a change in thinking and technology is not that hard to achieve. 51Degrees founder and CEO James Rosewell, described switching Google Analytics to a server-side deployment in 2014 for Smashing Magazine. Whilst the driving force behind the switch was to improve website performance and take away potentially costly analytics JavaScript bloating the overall page weight of the website, the technique remains applicable today.

Conclusion

For those not willing to lobby disconnect.me and the community to approve their website or tracker, or change whatever practice is seen to have been the cause of their addition to the blocked list, an alternative position needs to be taken.

Digital marketers becoming aware of the problem need to ensure senior management are briefed and understand the changes. No one wants the VP of Marketing thinking the web site has stopped performing. If Apple or Microsoft were to follow Mozilla with their Safari and Edge browsers the lost data and social media activity will become a major double-digit percentage.

For web technology businesses a corporate position needs to be agreed upon. The issue of privacy and the roles different players take is only just beginning.

51Degrees is the world's fastest and most accurate device detection solution for your website today, tomorrow and in the future. If you'd like to find out more please contact us and we'll be happy to discuss how we can help you maximize your business potential.

51Degrees enables you to detect over 55,000 different device models; allowing you to optimize your website and increase revenue.