Firefox, the open-sourced web browser built by Mozilla, is valued by privacy-conscious internet users as a more secure option than competing browsers — the company even offers up to $7,500 to anyone able to identify a security bug in its software. But new changes to the platform show that enhancing the user experience can be tricky for a company that prioritizes privacy.
In October, Mozilla informed users that it would be testing a recommendation tool that would collect data and share browsing activity with servers owned by its newly acquired company, Cliqz GmbH. A few months later, in an update on Mozilla’s acquisition of website-bookmarking application Pocket, the company announced Firefox would “soon experiment with showing an occasional sponsored story within the Pocket Recommendations section,” according to the press release.
The experimental changes are supposed to improve upon browser functions like search recommendations and web ads.
“Pocket recommendations and sponsored stories were implemented in a privacy-centric way. Neither Mozilla nor Pocket receives any of your browser history to make this experience possible,” Mozilla senior vice president Mark Mayo said in an email to Business Insider. “We’ve developed a novel approach to personalization whereby the entire process of sorting and filtering which stories you should see happens locally, inside your copy of Firefox, and isn’t reported back to Mozilla or Pocket. Users get great stories from the web that are relevant to them, without having to trade their privacy in return.”
While Mozilla has been transparent in compliance with its “No surprises” rule — one of its five data privacy principles — both the recommendation tool and sponsored story experiments do still require some amount of data collection, which goes against a second principle: “Limited data.”
Some Firefox fans are skeptical of the direction Mozilla is heading, and are already vetting new ideas on a Reddit post: “Firefox going downhill: What are the alternatives?”
“Firefox is indeed showing a worrying trend, once styled as the privacy centric equivalent to chrome, it’s now beginning to drift towards the mainstream with questionable new features and projects,” said one Reddit user.
In that same thread, another user points out that Firefox continues to be the best option, and that Mozilla’s transparency means users aren’t necessarily bound to these changes.
“I’d really like an alternative, but as long as I can opt-out or disable Mozilla’s ‘experiments’ I’ll use Firefox.”
This range in responses from Redditors highlights a balancing act that companies like Mozilla are facing: Add new features to make the platform more useful and seamless, or prioritize the security-conscious users and give them everything they want from a privacy-focused platform.
“Firefox is focused on being the best independent browser in the world,” Mayo told Business Insider. “Accordingly, we remain committed to protecting people’s privacy. When we released the latest version of Firefox Quantum last week, we added new features that give our users even more options to protect their personal data. Per our manifesto, item 4: ‘Individuals’ security and privacy on the Internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional.'”