Our summary

The latest stable version of Firefox (Firefox 38.01) adds a very nifty new setting. Unfortunately, if is not enabled by default, and is hidden away in the browser’s advanced settings.

The main purpose of Tracking Protection is to prevent websites tracking you as you surf the internet. Websites and third party analytics and advertising domains love to know everything you get up to on the internet, so that they can build up a detailed model of your likes, dislikes, who you associate with, and, most importantly, what your spending habits are. This then allows them deliver ever more targeted ads to your browser.

Unlike the Do Not Track browser setting, Tracking Protection does not simply ask websites nicely not to track you. Compliance with Do Not Track requests is completely voluntary, and is increasingly ignored by websites.

Tracking Protection uses a blocklist based on Disconnect’s blocklist, to help prevent cross-site tracking. This is great, as it does not rely on companies’ good will to prevent tracking.

Unlike ad-blocker or script-blocker add-ons, Tracking Protections will only block trackers (not ads). These trackers assign each new browser that visits a website a unique ID that is used to identify the browser (and hence the user) as it visits different websites.

Tracking Protection 1

However, one big additional trick that Tracking Protection has up its sleeve is that by stripping out the trackers, it also greatly improves page load times.

According to a research paper by Georgios Kontaxis and Monica Chew, Firefox loads pages on average 44 percent faster when using Tracking Protection. In addition to this, data usage drops by 29 percent when connecting to the top 200 Alexa websites, and the number of HTTP cookies stored by the browser falls by 67.5%. Amazing!

Given these clear advantages, then why does Mozilla keep quiet about the new feature, and hide it away in the advanced settings? The clue lies in the following line from the research paper’s conclusion,

Content providers who rely on advertising cannot stay in business without alternative revenue models.

Mozilla clearly feels responsible for not destroying advertisers’ revenue streams until a better internet monetizing model is developed (the authors suggest the Google Contributor program as once such model that shows promise.)

Despite this understandable concern, however, Kontaxis and Chew call upon Mozilla and other browser makers to do more to protect their users from unwanted and unethical tracking,

Finally, browser makers bear tremendous responsibility in mediating conflicts between privacy interests of users and the advertising and publishing industries. Tracking Protection for Firefox is off by default and hidden in advanced settings. We call upon Mozilla, Microsoft, and other browser makers to make tracking protection universally available and easy to use. Only then will the balance of power shift towards interests of the people instead of industry.

How to turn on Tracking Prevention in Firefox

  1. Type about:config into the search bar, and hit enter
  2. Agree to the ‘I’ll be careful, I promise’ warning
  3. Type (or copy/paste) ‘trackingprotection.enabled’ into the Search box
  4. Double-click the entry to turn Value to true.

Tracking Protection 2

For additional advanced settings that you can change to improve the security of your Firefox browser, please see this article.

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