Mozilla was supposed to be different. It brands itself as a non-profit organization dedicated to making the web better, one that cares about user privacy and security. But after this week, I’m starting to wonder if Mozilla really cares about its users the way they claim.
I just switched back to Firefox Quantum from Chrome, and this week’s Mr. Robot stunt makes me angry. But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised about Mozilla’s actions—this is exactly what we should expect from Mozilla given other recent decisions, like the forced integration of Pocket and the sponsored tiles on the home page. What happened to the company that unseated Internet Explorer and saved the web? Where did it lose its way?
If you missed the news, last week Mozilla began automatically installing an add-on named “Looking Glass” for Firefox users. The add-on had the cryptic description “MY REALITY IS JUST DIFFERENT THAN YOURS”, with no explanation of what it was or how it appeared. To be honest, it looked a lot like malware, which startled many users.
It turns out, the add-on was a tie-in for the TV show Mr. Robot, and installing it on users’ computers was part of a “Shield Studies” feature that’s designed to make Firefox better. You’re automatically opted in to this by default, and even if you disable it, many Firefox users report that Shield Studies will occasionally re-enable itself when you update Firefox. So good luck disabling it for good!
According to Mozilla’s website, seven separate people have to sign off on any given study, meaning seven separate people decided this Mr. Robot stunt was okay. One of Mozilla’s core principles that it claims to care about is “No Surprises“. Mozilla definitely doesn’t take that principle seriously anymore.
They quickly updated the add-on with a description, before backing off even further and removing it for everyone. But here’s what really makes me angry: They didn’t seem to understand why users are upset. A Mozilla representative gave Engadget a very defensive statement on Saturday, basically blaming users for not understanding the promotion and how awesome it was:
Our goal with the custom experience we created with Mr. Robot was to engage our users in a fun and unique way. Real engagement also means listening to feedback. And so while the web extension/add-on that was sent out to Firefox users never collected any data, and had to be explicitly enabled by users playing the game before it would affect any web content, we heard from some of our users that the experience we created caused confusion.
After much foot dragging, Mozilla released a statement on Monday, apologizing for the way this was handled and pledging to do better. But they only apologized after repeatedly trying to brush those user concerns off. Mozilla just didn’t seem to care, and they have a lot of soul searching to do.
This isn’t the only example of Mozilla’s out-of-character stunts, either—just the latest.
Since October 6, Mozilla has also been running an extremely questionable partnership in Germany.
Mozilla has partnered with a German startup named Cliqz, which they’ve invested in. Some people in Germany—less than 1%, according to Mozilla—who install Firefox will get a version with “Cliqz recommendations” enabled. As Mozilla puts it: “Users who receive a version of Firefox with Cliqz will have their browsing activity sent to Cliqz servers, including the URLs of pages they visit.”
Mozilla says this data is anonymized, but this is so antithetical to Mozilla’s supposed “mission” it’s shocking. These kind of stunts are exactly why people avoid other browsers and use Firefox: they want a clean, privacy-focused browser that won’t send their browsing history to some startup.
If we go back even further, we can find even more examples of Firefox abandoning its users wants and needs—though none quite as egregious as the above two. For example, Firefox should never have switched to Yahoo from Google. Mozilla said they were doing this to “promote choice and innovation”, but come on: what innovation actually came from the selection of Yahoo? It’s likely that Yahoo just offered more money to Mozilla than Google did, as the bulk of Mozilla’s revenue comes from these search engine partnerships.
We’re talking about a lot of money, too. Mozilla is a huge organization with a revenue of $520 million in 2016. They may be a non-profit, but search engine partnerships are big business.
Mozilla gave me hope by abandoning the Yahoo search engine and going back to Google with Firefox Quantum. But that was probably just a business decision, too. Under its contract with Yahoo, Mozilla can walk away from the deal and continue receiving payments of $375 million a year through 2019 if Yahoo was purchased by another company. Yahoo was purchased by Verizon, of course, so Mozilla gets to walk away, keep all that money, and probably get a nice big payday from Google, too.
Similarly, Mozilla’s integration of the Pocket read-it-later service still rubs many users the wrong way, too. Years ago, Mozilla partnered with a third-party proprietary service to integrate it directly into the Firefox. You can only disable Pocket through about:config, and while I personally like Pocket, that doesn’t mean it should be a part of Firefox for everyone.
Firefox has dabbled with uncomfortable advertising before, too. In 2014, Firefox added “sponsored tiles“—basically advertisements—to its New Tab page. The ads were based on your browsing history, too, which just isn’t in line with Firefox’s privacy-focused brand.
Mozilla ended this feature after a few months and a lot of criticism, but it never should have existed in the first place. And, while none of these “features” were quite as egregious as the latest examples, they certainly paved the way for Mozilla’s increasingly anti-user behavior. What’s next?
Mozilla markets itself as the savior of the open web, the only company that cares about providing privacy and user control—unlike Google, Microsoft, and Apple. It would be nice if that were more than just marketing.
Image Credit: Laura Houser.