A Big Step Forward and a Small Stumble Backward

Got another case of crossed wires here.

For the last couple of days, the Internet has been celebrating Mozilla’s announcement of “Firefox Developer Edition”. For the 90% of you reading this who aren’t web developers, FDE is the familiar Firefox browser–albeit a frequently updated version of the browser that includes “experimental”* features–with an integrated selection of tools for creating and debugging websites and web apps.

* In more standard language, the browser portion of FDE is Firefox’s pre-beta release. By using that version, Mozilla is clearly hoping Firefox developers will “eat their dogfood” and use FDE to develop Firefox. Not unreasonable, even if it does have some interestingly recursive implications (“Is this a bug in Firefox or the development environment?” “Yes!”)

What’s getting slightly less press is Mitchell Baker’s blog post on Firefox’s tenth anniversary. (Mitchell is Chair of the Mozilla Foundation. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that his statement reflects Mozilla’s official position.)

The post is well-worth the few minutes it’ll take you to read it, but if you’re in a tl;dr mood, it boils down to this: Firefox saved the Web from being taken over by Microsoft, and now it will save the Web from big business.

In other words, the mission hasn’t changed, but there are far more targets now. As he says, “I don’t want to be owned and tracked by giant multinationals or governments, or told which of the Web’s astonishing possibilities I’m allowed to enjoy. I don’t want that for the rest of the world’s citizens either.” A laudable sentiment–as long as you don’t own one of those multinational corporations or control a government. Hold that thought.

The third recent announcement from Mozilla crosses those wires I mentioned in the first sentence. The latest release of Firefox–the regular browser, not the Developer Edition–includes two features to enhance user privacy. The first is that the popular DuckDuckGo* search engine is now built in; that means it’s as easy to set DDG as your default search engine as for Google, Bing, or Yahoo. The second is the addition of a “Forget” feature. In two clicks you can delete all cookies and all internal records of sites you’ve visited in the past five minutes, two hours, or twenty-four hours. A morning-after pill for your search history, if you will (though Mozilla would probably rather you didn’t).

* DDG’s popularity is due in large part to their promise to never track what searches you’re making.

Sounds like the new release supports the mission, doesn’t it? Except for one little thing. According to Slashdot, this release also rolls out advertising on the directory tiles page. Haven’t seen directory tiles? Open a new, blank tab, and by default Firefox will throw up a set of thumbnails of sites you visit frequently and have visited recently. Some like it, some hate it. But now there will be a new reason to hate it, as some of those tiles will be filled with ads. The page I linked above says it will only affect new users, and only for the first thirty days, but that was written nine months ago. Plans could have changed–and even if they haven’t, that feature is under Mozilla’s control, not the users’. It could change tomorrow.

There’s an old saying about using a long spoon when eating with the Devil. Taking advertising money to support a tool dedicated to reducing the influence of advertisers calls for a very long spoon.