April 17, 2011

Chrome, Do Not Track, and Google Advertising

I'm sure you've already read the news that Google is the only modern Web browser that has yet to sign on to the Do Not Track feature that is or will be included with Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, and Opera. It seems pretty obvious to me that the Chrome team is bowing to pressure from Google's advertising business and that's a real shame. I had hoped they'd demonstrate a bit more independence than that.

But, it shouldn't be a surprise to me. Back in the early days of Mozilla, some of us (including some of the Chrome team who were early Netscape/Mozilla contributors) realized that the AOL/Netscape browser team was in a similar position.

We were getting ready to ship Mozilla 1.0 with an awesome pop-up blocker to kill those annoying advertising pop-ups that were destroying the usability of the Web. The Netscape browser team was going to be releasing Netscape 7.0 which was basically Mozilla 1.0 with a Netscape theme and a couple of proprietary Netscape features (AIM integration, AOL radio, partner bookmarks, etc.)

The Netscape browser team, however, wasn't as independent as most of us would have preferred (including most of the engineers on that team.) You see, the browser team actually reported in to the AOL/Netscape Web Properties team -- the folks responsible for AOL/Netscape's vast empire of websites (oh, and Time-Warner sites too). Those sites made all of their money from advertising and a big chunk of it from annoying pop-up advertising.

So, when the Netscape browser team shipped Netscape 7, they did something really unfortunate. They disabled the pop-up blocker. They did extra work to remove a feature that some of those same people had just built for Mozilla 1.0. They weren't horrible people, but they really had no choice because their paymasters over at AOL/Netscape Web Properties demanded it.

The result was that Netscape 7 got crushed in the press. The press theme around that release was "Don't bother with the crippled Netscape 7 when you can get almost everything it has plus a great pop-up blocker by downloading Mozilla 1.0."

The AOL/Netscape browser team and their Web Properties masters heard that message loud and clear and so they rushed out a quick follow-up, Netscape 7.0.1 "now with pop-up blocking". Only problem was that the greedy bastards at AOL and Netscape Web Properties couldn't get even this right and so when they launched 7.0.1 they shipped an exclusion list with the pop-up blocker that allowed all of the Netscape/AOL/Time-Warner site pop-ups to continue unblocked.

So, a Netscape user would grab the exciting new Netscape 7.0.1 "now with pop-up blocking" and after install the browser would launch and load the default homepage, www.netscape.com and, yep, you guessed it, infuriating pop-ups!

It was then that some of us realized that Netscape, because they were beholden to the Web Properties team -- AOL's web advertising revenue stream, would never be able to do the right thing for users. They were incapable because it conflicted with AOL/Netscape's need to generate advertising revenue.

OK, that's kind of a long story, but I can't help but think we're seeing the same kind of thing playing out here with Chrome and Do Not Track. This is doubly a shame because Chrome's lead, a former lead for Firefox, was there with us at AOL/Netscape fighting just this kind of stupidity. He was one of the good guys. Then again, he and I and others failed to convince Netscape that doing right by the users was more important than ad revenue. I suspect the same thing happened at Google. I'm sure he at least tried.

What a shame.

Photo by Flickr user TrevinC and used under a Creative Commons license.

Posted by asa at 2:02 PM