December 17, 2010

more frustrations with the tech press

The tech press doesn't (often) get the kinds of lurid violence and gore to cover that the evening news does, so they usually chase the next best thing, controversy. And when they can't find controversy, they'll sometimes just make it up.

Such was the case of the mostly bullshit Wall Street Journal article Hiding Online Footprints:
Makers of Firefox Browser Explore Do-Not-Track Tool After Scrapping Earlier Effort
which purports to reveal to the reader how Mozilla abandoned an important user privacy feature after secret meetings with the advertising industry.

That article is wrong. The WSJ got it about as wrong as it was possible to get. And weeks later, after many complaints, they published a little note at the end of the article saying they made a small mistake.

Here's what seems to have happened.

The author of this WSJ article, Julie Angwin, fabricated a timeline where Mozilla designs and builds a "do not track" feature, the advertising industry learns about this, Mozilla meets with representatives from the advertising industry, and immediately after that meeting Mozilla scraps the feature.

That's the foundation for the entire article. Mozilla caves to advertising industry pressure and sells out its users.

There's only one problem here. The timeline is bullshit -- a complete fabrication designed to smear Mozilla and generate controversy and pageviews.

We told the Wall Street Journal that it was wrong when they spoke to us for this article. And there's clear public documentation that shows that the timeline was wrong. There's really no good explanation other than that Julie Angwin knew it was wrong and intended to mislead her readers because it made for a more attention-grabbing story.

The real timeline was this: Mozilla engineers prototyped the feature and put it into testing. Mozilla engineers discussed what kind of impact it might have on the Web and concluded that not only would it not be very effective and have some undesirable side effects, but that it would drive advertisers to build worse experiences where users had even less privacy and control. So Mozilla scrapped the feature and started work on designing a better feature. Later, some advertising reps met with Mozilla to let Mozilla know what they were up to on the privacy front and to talk with Mozilla about what it was up to.

That's the story -- or non-story.

The Wall Street Journal knew this and still they published an entire article that was based on a lie. That article got picked up and the lie propagated around the Web. Two weeks later, the WSJ publishes a small note at the end of the article saying they made a minor mistake in the timeline.

That's not a minor mistake, Julie Angwin! That's the basis for your whole story!

How about a complete retraction? How about an apology for smearing Mozilla's good name?


The real shame here is this is an important topic that absolutely needs to be elevated above this kind of muckraking and the WSJ is just the kind of organization that could, if they wanted to, do that. Unfortunately, the "journalists" writing this story opted for sensationalism and controversy over education and public service.

Had they taken the time to learn what Mozilla's really about, instead of manufacturing a controversy, they would have known that Mozilla is a public benefit organization that never has and never will put advertisers above the needs of the global Web using public. But that story's already been written and probably wouldn't generate many ad-dollars for the Wall Street Journal.

Posted by asa at 12:18 PM


reactions, thoughts, comments, etc.

Glad to see a response to this story finally. I'm wondering why the official Mozilla Blog didn't respond to it earlier, though?

Posted by: RyanVM | December 17, 2010 2:18 PM

Well I have seen some more articles that are fabricated against Mozilla including this one on ZDnet:

I have seen though And I haven't seen anything like that on Chrome. I would be suspicious if there are few journalist that just get money to write such texts.

Posted by: Ivan Ičin | December 17, 2010 4:21 PM

You know, Mozilla can use the press on this subject too. Talk about the issues and tell them what Mozilla is doing or trying to do.

Posted by: VanillaMozilla | December 17, 2010 8:27 PM

If you have ever worked at mozilla, or worked with the people who work with mozilla, when you read an article like that, you think: huh?

Then you try to imagine that happening as described (ad representative gives powerpoint, mozilla people leave meeting room, return to cubes, and start removing the feature...) and it sounds like bad science fiction.

The entire lack of detail, in comparison to some of their very good articles, like the "What they know" series, was palpable.

(NOTE: I have worked with people from and briefly worked for

Posted by: benc | December 18, 2010 2:38 AM

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