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September 14th, 2015

The Firefox Is in the Hen House

Way back when, before Google got into the software biz with stuff like Android and Chrome, Firefox cut a deal with the ad-agency-masquerading-as-a-search-engine which probably made Mozilla’s browser the most well funded open source project outside of Linux. The deal — simply to make Google the default search engine in Firefox — was a no brainer, not only for Google and Mozilla but also for the browser’s user base, as most users would most likely choose Google anyway, since Google then, like today, was overwhelmingly the most used search engine in the solar system.

Firefox logoThe deal created a river of money flowing into Mozilla’s coffers — $138 million in 2011 alone — allowing rapid development of Firefox, proper maintenance of Thunderbird and Bugzilla, and the creation of Firefox OS. Although there was a bit of grumbling from some FOSSers who would’ve preferred a default search engine that was more respectful of user privacy rights, the deal was generally seen as a good thing for the free and open source community.

But good things don’t last forever, unless we’re talking about the moon and stars.

For a variety of reasons that nobody outside of Mozilla seems to completely understand, Mozilla ended its relationship with Google late last year to ink a deal with Yahoo. Some pundits are figuring that Yahoo offered better terms and that Mozilla stands to make more money now than before, especially since it’s now selling default search on a country-by-country basis instead of carte blanche for the entire planet. Others say the change in affiliation had little to do with money, but was brought about by ideological reasons, basically revolving around Mozilla’s Do Not Track system, which Google does not support. Reportedly, as part of the new deal, Yahoo has agreed to abide by Do Not Track requests.

Whether Mozilla receives more income from Yahoo than it did from Google is questionable, even if a majority of Firefox users keep Yahoo instead of flipping the switch to Google search, which is doubtful. Certainly, a recent move by Mozilla might indicate that the new deal with Yahoo isn’t as fruitful as the organization had hoped and that it’s scrambling to create new revenue streams.

Last year at about the time Mozilla announced it was dropping Google in favor of Yahoo, it announced it would also be displaying advertising in the form of sponsored tiles on blank new tabs. At the time of the announcement, this drew such an uproar from users that Mozilla quickly tabled the plan, which then seemed to be just another of those bad ideas that never happened. Unfortunately, it’s back — as we recently learned from Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols on ZDNet:

“…this summer, Mozilla quietly launched Suggested Tiles, the organization’s latest commercial ad product. Well, it will be ads. At the moment, Mozilla claims it’s not getting paid for them.”

Mozilla also claimed that these ads-that-aren’t-ads-because-we’re-giving-them-away-for-free are also a good thing for users, because they respect their privacy concerns: “Suggested Tiles ensure that user privacy is respected and maintained by using a minimum amount of non-Personally Identifiable Information (PII) data to deliver relevant ads. There is no user modeling, no sharing of data and no unspecified tracking of behavior — the user can actually explicitly see why Tiles is showing certain content.”

Not so fast, replied Vaughn-Nichols:

“That said, Firefox does send your browser Mozilla interaction history with the Tiles feature. Once there, your raw data is stored in the system’s storage and analysis engine, Disco. The aggregated data is then saved to a data warehouse, Redshift. This data is then used to create high-level aggregate reports for advertisers.”

This leaves the public with some pretty narrow choices when it comes to browsers. There’s Edge, made by Microsoft which makes it a no go at the gate with many users for security reasons and because…well, it’s made by Microsoft. Or there’s Chrome, probably the worst offender when it comes to privacy rights, but which at least has the decency to keep its GUI free from obvious advertisements. And now Firefox, long thought to be a champion of user rights, showing the chutzpah to serve up ads in empty browser space.

Obviously, Mozilla is betting on the public’s apathy, figuring there’ll be some noise for a while before things settle down and get back to normal. Probably the best that that could happen, as far as Mozilla is concerned, would be for Google to follow suit and start displaying ads in Chrome. That’s not likely, however. Long ago, Google made the wise decision to keep ads and other clutter off its search engine’s home page — and will probably remain true to that philosophy with Chrome.

Meanwhile, there are alternative browsers. Maybe it’s time to brush off Midori for a second look.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

11 comments to The Firefox Is in the Hen House

  • tracyanne

    Well if Mozilla is doing this (placing ads in blank new tabs), I’m not seeing them. In fact I don’t see ads period.

  • Duncan

    @tracyanne

    From what I’ve read and from what I see here, the only place they appear is on the about:newtab page, which is presumably the default for newtabs (I wouldn’t know since I’m a heavy customizer and for many apps haven’t seen application defaults in years).

    If your newtabs default to about:blank, or to some other homepage, you are unlikely to see them.

    Meanwhile, what the about:newtab page has normally shown is thumbnail versions of some of your most recent and/or most frequently visited pages (I’m not sure its specific algorithm), allowing you to quickly click a thumbnail to go to that page. So it makes a reasonably good homepage as well, which is what I have it configured as.

    But the thumbnails normally depend on what’s in cache to populate, thus avoiding having to reload them from the net every time, and here, I have the disk cache set to a tmpfs (Linux RAM-based filesystem), so it resets to empty every time I reboot. So most of the time, the would-be thumbnails are simply blank rectangles with some text labeling the page the thumbnail would be of, if there was anything in cache to show. Which is OK with me, I can still click the rectangle to go to that page if it’s where I wanted to go, and it’s interesting seeing what pages whatever the algorithm is believes I’m likely to want to go back to.

    But with most thumbnails being blank rectangles, the ads do really jump out as they’re not blank!

    So far, however, the only ads I’ve seen are Mozilla-internal ads, for the firefox themes page, for instance, and for the (relatively) new firefox appstore, which I clicked on once out of curiosity, but as I primarily use the browser for actual browsing, I didn’t find any apps of particular interest and quickly got bored and closed that tab, going back to whatever I was actually browsing.

    I don’t actually mind most “internal” ads, ads for other stories on sites I’m already visiting, etc, and here ads for firefox apps/themes/etc, because I’m generally interested in whatever the site/app/whatever is covering or I’d not be there in the first place, and they’re often informational, so I’ve not bothered doing anything with it, so far. But if I start seeing anything annoying, and most external ads are very quickly annoying for me, I’ll probably simply reset my homepage/newtabpage to about:blank or the like.

    OTOH, it’s /possible/ that however mozilla is serving the ads, I won’t see anything but the internal ads anyway, due to running request-policy, etc, to block sites unnecessary to whatever page I’m actually on, for security reasons (request-policy also happens to block most ads as they’re generally served from unrelated domains and are unnecessary to display the page, but that’s simply a side effect of the primarily security tool/policy), or because they download to cache and serve from there and I with cache on tmpfs it’s empty but for the single boot session contents in any case, etc. Tho I might switch back to about:blank or about:mozilla or some such homepage in any case, since blank rectangles are pretty boring, and it’s mostly mild curiosity about what the algorithm thinks I’m likely to go back to that has me using the page in the first place, so if it gets too boring, I’ll simply go back to about:blank or whatever. But irritating ads, which would be pretty much any external ads, or pretty much anything animated/flashing/etc if mozilla were stupid enough to make their internal ads do that, would trigger a much faster drop, for sure.

  • Mike S.

    I still support Firefox.
    1. It’s the only widely used web browser that’s fully open source. It’s also the only widely used open source alternative to the Webkit and Blink family of browsers and I think that competition is good.
    2. It supports the EFF Privacy Badger add-on and other similar add-ons to improve blocking of third party tracking. I don’t believe Midori or Konqueror (for example)
    have anything similar.
    3. Firefox OS is the best chance the world has currently to destroy the walled gardens on mobile device ecosystems. They’re adding standards to HTML5 that will let you make phone calls, send SMS messages, take pictures, record videos, do videoconferencing, and play graphics-intensive 3D games right in your browser without add-ons or server side support. As these standards mature and get implemented, vendor lock-in to smart phones with iOS, Android, or Windows disappears because you do every single thing that matters on your phone with a browser and bookmarks.

  • Double-edged swords and all of that…

    This disturbed me as it will probably disturb anyone that is concerned with their privacy. Firefox has had a checkered past concerning they ways they intended to keep a record of our activity. Of course, when the howling reaches a certain pitch, then they make a grand announcement that this “issue” has been fixed and you can go back to ignoring the man behind the curtain.

    But as it most often happens with me, pragmatism will best philosophical ideals without much of a fight. I have established a set of FF extensions/addons that make my workflow as smooth as a puck on the ice. They are not simply a matter of convenience, they are now a working part of my day and dropping them would completely bottleneck my workflow. And as Mike mentions above, Firefox does due diligence in providing an option to the advert-friendly group of browsers that, at best, promise on privacy rights but slink their way around that promise via semantics.

  • juan

    Lets be realistic here. Developers needs to pay bills and eat. Unless donors come up with a lot of money every year, how can anyone expect to keep having a great browser for free (and don’t forget Thunderbird!)

    I use Open Source at every opportunity over proprietary and every now and then I pay developers something when I can. I also need to pay bills and I do it from work I get done using FOSS.

  • lpbbear

    I still support and Firefox but…..I’m getting damned tired of removing useless crap like Yahoo and Bing search from copies of it. Apparently I will be customizing these “ads” out as well.

  • No ads on new tabs here–I use Adblock +

  • Jim Smith

    In my Firefox, version 40.0.3, seeing the “suggested sites” is an option. I do not believe that it is checked by default, correct me if I am wrong on that, but i do not remember unchecking it.

  • Mike

    Is this really an issue for FOSS? Anyone likely to be highly bothered is probably already running one of the many Firefox variants, e.g. Iceweasel that will ‘correct’ any egregious behavior Mozilla adds.

    That just leaves people running on platforms like Windows. If you are running Windows you have far bigger problems than which browser you use. That’s like trying to close a window in a house being hit by a tornado.

  • Elder-Geek

    I use PaleMoon. It is a fork of Firefox. It has the old look an feel that Firefox used to have. Most browser extensions work with it. It is a true fork, the port any modern feature they want back over to the PaleMoon. This means PaleMoon is lacking the privacy concerns that now plauge Firefox.

    On my 6+ year old hardware, any Firefox more recent than 38 runs way to slow for me. PaleMoon is the obvious choice on all fronts.

  • CFWhitman

    I use several different browsers on a regular basis. The Firefox based ones seem to be the only ones that support color management, so I’m not likely to abandon them any time soon. Besides Firefox, I use both Iceweasel and Pale Moon regularly. Non-Firefox/Gecko based browsers I use at times include Chromium, Chrome, Midori, and Qupzilla.

    You can easily turn off suggested sites in Firefox. The question is, does that turn of the tracking parts or just the ads themselves? I don’t know the answer to that, but if you want to be sure, there are always Iceweasel, Pale Moon, and Seamonkey.

    I certainly would hate to see Firefox leave the scene because every other open source browswer seems to be Webkit based at the moment. I don’t like the idea of only one open source browser engine still being supported.