Lightbeam Firefox tool aids personal data debate

Lightbeam, a new add-on to Mozilla’s Firefox internet browser, claims to detect which companies track web users on any given website and then display them in a simple visual format. The effort should be applauded, because more transparency means greater understanding.


The tool, which can be downloaded free of charge by Firefox users, is the latest step Mozilla has taken towards giving consumers an informed choice about accepting or rejecting behavioural tracking. Firefox already offers a ‘Do not track’ option in its user settings (although advertising companies can simply ignore this), while a long-awaited update to the browser will eventually block by default all cookies from any website other than the one the user has visited.

In a video accompanying the launch of Lightbeam, Mozilla global privacy and public policy leader Alex Fowler said: “When we take back that curtain and we expose all of the interactions that users have, it’s not necessarily good or bad. I think the bad that we’re focusing on here is the lack of awareness, the lack of understanding.”

It’s likely that some in the online ad industry won’t fully agree. But those who think Lightbeam will just give consumers another reason to switch off tracking and cookies would be missing the point. Behavioural tracking would benefit – not lose out – from a greater level of understanding. Light, as the saying goes, is the best disinfectant.

At the moment, consumers’ only meaningful response to cookies and tracking is suspicion. That’s mainly because the only angle that’s ever pursued by mainstream media in relation to data processing is the threat it poses to privacy and security. The debate needs to be moved on, so the public can distinguish between when data collection is done badly – or worse, illegally – and when it provides a more valuable service to both consumers and brands.

What the online marketing industry really needs to do is make a better effort at communicating the good things that behavioural tracking leads to. Consumers are dimly aware that their web experiences are being influenced more than ever by the tracking of cookie data, as well as device and location data. But as website personalisation becomes normalised, it’s easy to forget what a non-personalised website feels like.

A few weeks ago I suggested site owners should provide a cookie-free option, so consumers can remind themselves and choose whether they prefer it that way. That seems to me the best way to demonstrate the positive effects of tracking, but presenting people with as much information as possible about all the tracking that takes place makes them better able to choose.

If, by using tools like Lightbeam, consumers can learn exactly who is tracking their online behaviour, and from there educate themselves about what value each provider is adding or subtracting, online marketing will be a much better place. It will be a long, slow journey to get users to this point, since it is such a technically complex field to navigate. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a journey worth making.

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