Firefox to auto-block ad trackers

Mozilla’s browser will first target trackers that slow down page loading, then tackle cross-site trackers that follow users around the web.

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Pixabay (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Mozilla this week said that its Firefox browser will soon start to automatically block some ad tracking technologies that the company claimed impact page load performance and shadow users wherever they go.

"In the near future, Firefox will — by default — protect users by blocking tracking," wrote Nick Nguyen, Mozilla's top Firefox executive, in an August 30 post to a company blog.

Mozilla added what it dubbed "Tracking Protection" to Firefox 57, a.k.a. "Quantum," last fall. Since then, the feature has remained opt-in, meaning people must manually enable it from the browser's Preferences display if they want to use it. When switched on, Tracking Protection blocks a wide range of content, not just advertisements but also in-page trackers that sites or ad networks implant to follow users from one website to another. Such trackers are the reason why an ad for underwear from a specific vendor seemingly pops up wherever one goes after one has browsed the underwear selection at the seller's website.

(Mozilla introduced Tracking Protection in its Private Browsing mode in November 2015 but waited until two years later to add it to browser overall.)

The turn from opt-in to default will not happen overnight, said Nguyen, who outlined a several-step roadmap. The first of those steps will identify and block trackers that slow down page loading, using a tool already embedded in Firefox Nightly, the latest and least stable build offered by Mozilla. If testing next month pans out, Mozilla will include the feature in the production-grade version of Firefox 63, which is slated to ship October 23. (Firefox is currently on version 61 but will bump to 62 on September 5.)

Next, Mozilla will tackle cross-site tracking, which is what most irritates users, as ads tail them like determined gumshoes. "Firefox will strip cookies and block storage access from third-party tracking content," Nguyen pledged. This too has been added to Firefox Nightly, and will expand to a broader-based test in September. If all goes well, Nguyen targets Firefox 65 as the version that will include anti-cross-site tracking. The Firefox release calendar now lists Firefox 65 with a tentative ship date of Jan. 29, 2019.

Firefox is not the first browser to take a stand on anti-tracking. Apple's Safari debuted "Intelligent Tracking Protection," or ITP, in 2017, adding the feature to the versions running on both macOS and iOS. And Apple has beefed up ITP in the new editions that will ship next month with macOS "Mojave" and iOS 12, barring all cross-site tracking cookies unless the user has actually interacted with the advertising content.

Other, smaller browsers — boutique browsers — such as Epic and Brave also claim to block some or all ad tracking elements.

Anyone who wants to try out Mozilla's still-in-the-works blocking features can do so by downloading and installing Firefox Nightly, then by accessing the browser's Control Center menu and the new "Content Blocking" section there.

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