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Mozilla adds promoted ad content to Firefox

September 7, 2015
firefox-suggested-content-01

Looks like a History Tile and it’s mixed in with the History Tiles but it’s an ad.

On Friday, while I was helping a friend deal with a minor difficulty opening PDF files on his Windows 7 computer, I thought that I spotted another, more serious, problem with his Firefox web browser.

Newly created tab pages displayed what appeared to be tiles of promoted content — ads basically. These were either by themselves on the new tab page or mixed in with  the familiar grid of History Tiles — those miniature screenshots of the user’s most recently and/or frequently visited websites.

But these “suggested” links to websites had nothing to do with my friend’s browsing history.

It was as though something like the Conduit search toolbar had managed to sneak into his web browser (and not for the first time either).

However, what I took for evidence of intrusive adware was really an intrusive “innovation” on the part of Firefox’s own Mozilla Foundation, called “Suggested Tiles” — an attempt to create a defensible and saleable method of delivering targeted advertising to Firefox users.

Not a feature I would’ve suggested that Firefox add

Mozilla's example of Suggested Tiles from May, 2015 (with my arrows).

Mozilla’s example of Suggested Tiles from May, 2015 (with my arrows). — Mozilla

The Mozilla Foundation‘s VP of Content Services, Daren Herman, announced the introduction of Suggested Tiles to Firefox on May 21 and called them an important step in improving the state of digital advertising for the Web.

“With Suggested Tiles we want to show the world that it is possible [Daren’s emphasis] to do relevant advertising and content recommendations while still respecting users’ privacy and giving them control over their data. And to bring influence to bear on the whole industry, we know we will need to deliver a highly effective advertising product”.

A few months earlier, in February, Herman was discussing another new innovation called Directory Tiles:

“Directory Tiles are a new project from Mozilla, to deliver a better experience for new Firefox users.  Because a new Firefox user has no browser history, they don’t see content in tiles when they open a new tab.  Our idea with Directory Tiles is to pre-populate the new tab page for those users with sites we think they’ll find useful or interesting”.

Herman rolled out both of these features as part of his job to diversify Mozilla’s revenue beyond the only thing currently sustaining the foundation; that being the royalty paid by a search provider (currently Yahoo) to be the default choice in Firefox’s right-hand corner search field.

Missed these changes but I haven’t missed Firefox

The very small proof that this is an ad for Yahoo, Mozilla single largest funder.

The fine print saying that this tab is an ad for Yahoo, Mozilla largest funder.

This addition of Suggested Tiles to Firefox caught me completely off guard because I had stopped using Mozilla’s core version of the open source web browser in April of 2014, after Firefox 29 adopted a new interface called Australis, which made it look and feel too much like Google’s Chrome browser for my liking.

The browser that I switched to was Pale Moon, a so-call “fork” of Firefox, built using much of the the same code but distinctly committed to keeping many of the best interface features that Mozilla was stripping out of Firefox.

Revisiting Mocilla’s Firefox some 17 months later on my friend’s laptop, I found version 40.x still somewhat familiar to the eye but terribly frustrating to use. And to be honest, I found the Suggested Tiles feature infuriating.

Daren Herman describes the tiles as a good form of web advertising that are in no way deceptive — that they allow users to easily understand what content is being promoted and by whom. but I disagree.

Including advertising in a form almost indistinguishable from user History Tiles, except for the addition of a teensy-tiny “suggested” tab, is deceptive in my book. Every bit as deceptive as calling paid advertising “promoted content”, now that I think about it.

You're only two clicks away from opting out -- if you know where to click.

You’re only two clicks away from opting out — if you know where to click.

Herman further explains that these ad tiles are particularly acceptable because users can opt out of them in two clicks from the New Tab page, without having to read a lot of instructions.

And, says Herman, Suggested Tiles are delivered without the retaining or sharing of personal data, or the use of cookies.

However, my friend didn’t have a clue what was going on until I pointed it out to him. The browser did nothing to inform him or tell him that he could turn the ads off by clicking an obscure little gear icon in the top right hand corner of a new tab window.

And speaking of cookies, this reminds me of the 2011 EU cookie consent law that obliged thousands of websites to kick up a one-time notice to the effect:

“We use cookies to improve your experience. By your continued use of this site you accept such use. To change your settings please see our policy.”

It would go along ways toward real transparency if Mozilla implemented a similar one-time notice informing Firefox users of the presence of advertising mixed in with their browsing history and how they could opt out.

And labeling the tabs clearly as “advertising” or “paid by [advertiser]” would be another straightforward and honest thing to do.

Desperate measure for a desperate situation?

Personally, I’m not impressed by these two features that Mozilla has adopted to curate and monetize the Firefox user experience. Twitter has been toying with more or less the same two ideas: pre-populating a new user’s timeline with suggested content and then inserting promoted advertising tweets.

For Mozilla to take a page from Twitter, just suggests to me that the former is as desperate as the latter; Twitter having yet to make a dime of profit in the nine years that it has operated.

But there’s no denying that Mozilla is in a terrible bind. It’s a tiny under-funded non-profit foundation trying to pit its Firefox browser against offerings from two of the world’s largest technology companies: Chrome, from Google, and Internet Explorer from Microsoft (as well as the new Windows 10 Edge browser).

And worst of all, for several years, Mozilla has been beholden for its very survival to Google, the maker of the Chrome browser that has been slowly killing Firefox.

In 2103, at least 90 percent of Mozilla’s declared revenue of USD$311 million came from just one source: the annual royalty paid by Google since 2004 to be the default North American search choice in Firefox.

At the end of 2013 Google lost out to Yahoo, possibly because Yahoo was willing to pay more but no one outside of the players knows the details. Just as likely, Google no longer felt that Firefox was worth the money.

browser-market-share-2014-2015

Google’s Chrome had not only  built a seemingly unassailable market share (48 percent share on desktops and tablets, to Firefox’s meagre 16 percent, as of last month) but Google may also have reasoned that a majority of experienced Firefox users would choose to toggle Firefox’s default search from Yahoo back to Google.

Following the deal with Mozilla, Yahoo’s share of North American search traffic rose from 10.2 percent — before it’s December 1. 2014 inclusion as Firefox’s top search option — to a high of 13 percent in January, 2015, before slipping down to 12.7 by March.

As of August, 2015, StatsCounter gives Google a 79.75 percent share of North American search, followed by Bing at 10.13 percent and Yahoo at 8.35 percent.

Clearly it’s becoming Google’s world and Mozilla is just trying to stay alive in it.

But I can’t believe that the best way to compete against Chrome is to ape its look and features, as Mozilla has done with Firefox and what one of the only other independent browsers of note — Opera — has done by basing its future development on the same open source Chromium project that Google Chrome is based on.

And it disturbs me to see Mozilla adopt any of the same disingenuous advertising methods as social media platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Mozilla has done a world of good for computer users in the past and it continues to do what it thinks is best but it’s almost as if in desperation the foundation has come around to the idea that if it can’t beat them (the Google’s and the Microsoft’s, et cetera) then it should just try to join them.

In any event, I can’t agree with the direction that the foundation has chosen for Firefox and,happily, I don’t have to.

It’s important to remember that while Google just uses the open source Chromium project in order to create the closed source Chrome browser, Mozilla’s Firefox is open source code through-and-through. There are something like ten active forks of the Firefox code base and at least seven of them are mature projects meeting a need not met by Mozilla’s Firefox:

  • CometBird, with bult-in translation and bookmark synchronization
  • Comodo Ice Dragon, designed to be a faster and more secure version of Firefox for Windows.
  • Flock, which is in some sort of transition.
  • IceCat a rebranding for the GNU operating System.
  • Iceweasel, a similar rebranding for Debian Linux.
  • Pale Moon, build for Windows and Linux and focused on efficiency and ease of use.
  • SwiftFox, Linux builds for AMD and Intel processors, based on the most cutting edge Firefox code.
  • TenFourFox, the latest Firefox code for older PowerPC processor Mac computers!
  • Timberwolf, Firefox for Amiga, stalled since 2012 at  Firefox 4.0.1 but working towards v. 19!
  • Waterfox, a 64-bit Firefox built for Macintosh and speed.

To be blunt, I no longer see the Mozilla Foundation as Firefox incarnate. The code, I believe, is bigger than any one developer and certainly bigger than any one developer’s narrow vision for that code. That’s the real beauty of open source software and it’s  the reason why I can continue to love Firefox, aka Pale Moon. Click the image to enlarge them.

2 Comments
  1. ~xtian permalink

    It’s been awhile, Jim lad. An old CD-R with a LibriVox recording of “Treasure Island” on it is to blame, Jim.

    The WordPress is confustications itself these days, Jim me lad. It fair gives me the shits, it does.

    I’m glad to see you’re still up and at it. How’s the bike doing?

    And I am in ENVY of the sort of kit you seem able to get your cheerful Canadian mitts on. I’m still running my old Inspiron, although the wifi has gone where wifi goes, and I’m resorting to a 2009 Huawei phone as a wifi dongle.

    • I love Robert Newton’s Long John Silver!

      It’s really nice to hear from you ~X. I hope your coat is shiny and all that. Just coming into spring in your part of the world, isn’t it?

      Sadly, I just gave away a “skipped” Toshiba laptop that that was old but perfect, hardware-wise — except for needing a new hard drive. I booted a live Linux very nicely. Perhaps I could wipe and bundle up the HP “tanktop” that is now my standby laptop.

      Also, somewhere in my storage locker, I have an old Asus N13 USB stick that I haven’t touched for years that I used with Windows and Mac OS X and which was also supposed to be compatible with Linux (though I never tried it on that platform — Wireless drivers and Linux…brr)

      I’d like to migrate my WP.com to a .org someday I have my issues with Automattic not adding meaningful features to WP.com, just twiddling with interface changes. But a .org is a greater responsibility for all the customizability it allows.

      My bike and trailer send their regards. The trailer has some “issues” and the disc brakes are weak at present but being able to stop in traffic is over-rated in Vancouver. It’s harder for cars to hit a moving target.

      Don’t be such a stranger.

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