In move that is likely to upset many, Mozilla has introduced sponsored tiles into its Firefox browser’s start page. Mozilla, the non-profit foundation behind the free and open source browser, has always been at the forefront of the battle to maintain internet users’ privacy (unlike its commercial rivals Google, Apple and Microsoft), so this move is being seen as a betrayal by some until-now loyal fans.
However, we would caution against any knee-jerk reaction against Mozilla. The full implications of the move are still being extensively explored and discussed, but the facts seem to be:
- The ads only appear on the Start and New Tab pages, and do not involve cookies or other means of tracking you across the internet. Data is not sent to Mozilla unless you interact with a ‘live tile’
- It is very easy to turn the ads off (see below for more details). What is not clear, however, is whether turning off the ads prevents you from being tracked
- The ads are turned off by default if you have the ‘do not track’ Privacy setting enabled
- Mozilla says that all data collected is in ‘aggregate form, meaning no data is personally identifiable’ (information includes page impressions, clicks, and tile placement). Given its past record in fighting for and protecting user’s privacy, there is good reason to trust Mozilla on this, but metadata is far from ‘harmless’ (even if Mozilla is not collecting metadata, its advertising partners may well be, and may well be able to determine who you are). It is also a fact that all ‘anonymized’ data can (at least in theory) be de-anonymized
- Firefox remains open source, and the code can be independently audited
The sub-text here is that Firefox is struggling compete with the big commercial players, who, able to afford the cream of program developers and with almost unlimited resources, are winning over the non-privacy savvy masses with ever slicker interfaces and convenient features (Firefox’s market share has been steadily falling, and is now below 14 percent.)
There is therefore a strong argument that if a bit of non-invasive advertising is the price of keeping this plucky FOSS browser competitive, then so be it (interestingly, Mozilla gets most of its funding from Google, with less than 1 percent coming from donations, so an independent review stream would seem vital if it is to maintain its independence).
However, there are aspects of the new ‘Live Tiles’ advertising that appear rather unsettling; most notably that suggestions are based on users’ browser history (which would imply that Mozilla is accessing users’ browser History).
However, this article explaining what data is collected from the tiles indicates that very little information is transmitted (position of tile, pin status (users can pin tiles they are interested in), and frequency factor). The ‘Prospecting Future Tile Partners’ section, though, does raise the spectre of user’ Histoty being accessed in the future,
‘Proposal: Run a limited-time experiment in the beta channel to collect information about the top history site information.’
As redditor dblom7 noted however,
‘A proposal for a telemetry experiment in beta is a long way from forcing that upon users in release.’
Judging from comments on forums such as reddit and on Mozillas’s own blog pages, many users are already preparing to jump ship. Our feeling on the matter is to wait and see. At present all ad features seem easy to opt out of (see below), and the Mozilla Foundation has an impressive history of both protecting its users’ privacy, and of listening to its users (which will be important if enough people consider the changes a bridge too far).
Although other options exist (see also below), none of them offer the stability or features of Firefox, and as long as organizations such as the EFF back the browser, we think it worth sticking with.
How to opt-out
Opting out is easy – simply click the ‘gear’ settings icon on the top right of the page, and choose between:
- Enhanced (will display Live Tile ads in among ‘Classic’ tiles
- Classic – displays tiles based on your recent history (no information is sent to Mozilla)
- Black – simply displays a blank page
The really paranoid out there can go further, and change the following about:config settings:
- browser.newtabpage.directory.ping to https://127.0.0.1 (see here for loopback address)
- browser.newtabpage.directory.source to https://127.0.0.1
- browser.newtabpage.enabled to false
- browser.newtabpage.enhanced to false
If the whole Live Tiles ads thing is a complete deal-breaker for you, then you have a number of options.
Since Firefox is free open source software (FOSS), any developer can take the code and run with it, which has led to the development of a number of ‘forks’, the most popular of which is Pale Moon.
Pale Moon is lauded for having all the advantages of Firefox (including compatibility with Firefox plugins), while being more resource efficient (less bloat). In testing, however, we have found Pale Moon to be somewhat unstable, and that many Firefox plugins will break it. On the plus side, Blue Moon is available for Android, and a migration tool makes transitioning from Pale Moon to Firefox as painless as possible.
Other Firefox forks you might want to consider are: