Netscape's disappearing privacy code

It's not dead... it just won't work

Netscape has denied yanking privacy features from Mozilla builds under pressure from parent company - and the leading project sponsor of the open source browser project - AOL. The code in question allows users to block banner ads. According to Netscape's Steve Morse, speculation is premature. The code is being included in builds, but has been publicly disabled. It can still be enabled in the user preference file that Mozilla (and hence Communicator) reads at start-up. An earlier Mozilla bug report pinpointed the problem with the code as marking images as ads which weren't ads at all -- specifically the buttons in AltaVista, which get fetched from another server. They have they own reasons for that, we're sure, but that's by the by. However, the speculation doesn't seem to have been entirely irrational. After the code had already been marked as a problematic in an earlier bug report, Netscape's reaction to a subsequent bug report - noting the disappearance of the option from the menus - was the one that aroused conspirators' suspicions. Netscape initially market this as WONTFIX rather than INVALID, suggesting a refusal to fix the problem rather than an acknowledgement that the bug report was a duplicate. And Morse himself blew on the tinders by suggesting that the bug had been removed by management edict, which he now denies. According to Mozilla developer Blake Ross, "A fantastic new feature might be added today; likewise, the decision could be made tomorrow to cut the 'Reload' button. Who knows? It's entirely fair to critize [sic] a public product, but to judge it by its shortcomings when it's only in beta stages simply isn't." It's difficult to overestimate the impact of such a powerful tool gaining widespread distribution. More likely than not - although it has yet to commit publicly - AOL will use Mozilla components as the basis of future versions of its own client, and with numerous ports in progress, and its adoption in widespread embedded distribution Mozilla is poised to be a very popular browser indeed. And the thinking is that users would have privacy and ad-filtering on by default, rather than opting-in to such sophisticated offerings such as Zero Knowedge and Anomymizer. Another question entirely is whether the code can be made to work using a client-side fix alone. Mozilla developers say it's tricky enough to distinguish between ads and content; and we can be sure that advertisers and trackers would work around such sophisticated, distributed privacy guards such as cookie-deflectors, which steer the server to random anonymised, and therefore pretty worthless, cookies on a third-party machine. But including the code in the client does give the user the edge, for a change. And the resulting fallout from this might even persuade Netscape/AOL to regard privacy safeguards as a punter-pleasing feature, rather than something which will precipitate the end of e-commerce as we know it. ®

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