What's up with Mozilla buying ad firm Anonym? It's all about 'privacy-centric advertising'

Is such a thing possible for an industry that never respected people's wishes?

Analysis Mozilla this week said it has acquired ad metrics firm Anonym, touting the deal as a way to help the online advertising industry support user privacy while delivering effective adverts.

Essentially, Moz has bought an outfit, founded in 2022 by former Meta executives, that among other things helps advertisers and ad networks measure how well online adverts are performing and that they are being seen by the right audiences, in a way that ideally preserves people's privacy.

Mozilla Corporation CEO Laura Chambers announced the tie-up, citing the industry shift toward more privacy-preserving ads as a rationale.

"With growing consumer concerns and increasing scrutiny from regulators, it’s evident that current data practices are excessive and unsustainable," said Chambers in an announcement this week. "We are at the forefront of a pivotal shift in how privacy and advertising coexist, reshaping the digital landscape for advertisers, platforms, and consumers."

Mozilla's marquee product, the Firefox browser, has long been a refuge from the not-so-private Google Chrome ecosystem among those who block ads for the sake of security [PDF] and privacy. And many of its other products also emphasize privacy, which since the 1990s has implied the avoidance of online advertising.

Regulatory changes in the past few years have led to efforts to reconcile privacy and advertising, most notably Google's Privacy Sandbox, a set of notionally privacy-preserving ad technologies intended to take over from the intrusive data collection enabled by third-party cookies – due to be phased out next year.

As services like Oracle Advertising fall victim to reduced data availability, those aiming to reinvent the ad market in a more legally compliant form have grown fond of the phrase "privacy-preserving." Brave Search Ads, for example, is a "privacy-preserving ad platform." Apple's Safari browser has a setting to enable "Privacy-Preserving Ad Measurement." And Microsoft Edge has its own approach for "privacy-preserving ads."

Arielle Garcia, director of intelligence for ad watchdog Check My Ads, told The Register in an email that she's generally skeptical of claims about privacy-preserving ad technology.

"For example, how do Anonym’s audience capabilities, like their lookalike modeling, jibe with what Mozilla considers to be 'exploitative models of data extraction?' The data that is 'securely shared' by platforms and advertisers to enable ad targeting and measurement have to come from somewhere – and there’s more to privacy than not leaking user IDs."

Whatever the case, Mozilla's embrace of Anonym's "unique privacy-preserving technology" should turn a few heads. Not only is the browser developer committing to a business that its software has served to shut out, but the public benefit corporation may have found a revenue source to make it less dependent on Google Search payments.

Anonym, we're told, will operate as its own business unit within Mozilla. The company provides privacy-safe ad measurement, audience segmentation, and ad delivery optimization.

Asked whether Mozilla has any concerns that its user base, many ardent ad-blockers among them, will oppose Anonym, a spokesperson for the Firefox house told The Register advertising as a business model is what allows the internet to be free and open to everyone, though there's still room for improvement.

"Our vision is a web which empowers individuals to make informed choices without their privacy and security being compromised," the spinner said. "While there is no denying behavioral advertising is the underlying business model of the web today, it does not mean that it cannot be reformed to minimize its societal harms. With this acquisition, we have made a huge step forward in moving towards that vision."

While there is no denying behavioral advertising is the underlying business model of the web today, it does not mean that it cannot be reformed to minimize its societal harms

Garcia said, "It will be interesting to see how Anonym’s current and future ad offerings interact (or don’t) with Firefox – and the typically more privacy-conscious, advertising-avoidant users that tend to gravitate toward it. While the announcement doesn’t mention Firefox, the company has alluded to potential partnership in the future."

Moz's representatives had nothing to say about the approaches taken by other advertisers like Apple and Google, though they did elaborate on how Anonym works.

"Anonym allows advertisers to join their first party data to publisher data for the purpose of measurement, targeting and optimization, but the nature of their technology is that calculations occur in a private and secure environment where humans do not access the individual data, the outputs are private and anonymous, and all individual data and PII is destroyed after the calculations are complete," a rep told us. "Anonym does not see or retain individual data or build profiles."

Asked to whether the Anonym deal represents a new strategic direction for Mozilla, the representative replied, "Anonym’s approach helps to democratize privacy-centric advertising by offering an approach that levels the playing field and prevents a winner-take all internet. In that way, it provides a compelling competitive vision to those proposed by the dominant ad platforms today, where data is consolidated behind their already high garden walls and advertisers and consumers are asked to trust them that they are protecting privacy."

Garcia said that given Mozilla's work to advance tracking protection and the positions they’ve taken about the need for regulatory interventions that limit first-party data sharing to promote competition, there's reason to be optimistic about the Anonym deal.

"The elephant in the room – and the opportunity – is how to solve for the industry-created problem that people don’t like and don’t trust advertising," said Garcia. "Privacy-enhancing tech doesn’t make creepy and disruptive ads less creepy or disruptive in the eyes of the average user. Building 'trusted execution environments' is one part of the equation. Regaining consumer trust is the bigger challenge at hand, and I look forward to seeing Mozilla’s plans to tackle it." ®

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