Hats Off to Mozilla


Firefox turned ten years old last November and celebrated the occasion with a new version (33.1) that featured a much-welcomed developer edition. It also featured a "forget" button that lets you backspace through time, blowing away history, cookies and open tabs: one more privacy tool for the shed.

Those were two among many new moves by Mozilla, Firefox's parent, all siding with individuals leaning against two prevailing winds that have blown across the on-line world for at least a decade.

The first is centralization.

Ten years ago, we still were in what Tantek Çelik calls "the heyday of the independent Web". Back then, it was easy to homestead on the Net's frontier with your own domain, site, blog, e-mail and so on. "We all assumed that it was sort of our inevitable destiny that the Web was open, the Internet was open, everyone had their own identity", Tantek says. Now most of us live and work in feudal fiefdoms: the Kingdom of Google, the Duchy of Facebook, the Empire of Apple, the Electorate of Amazon, the Principality of Twitter. That we can travel between these castles does not diminish our dependent stature.

On mobile devices, we also live inside the castles of carriers, plus every app's own walled garden inside those castles. This is very different from the personal computing world, where the Net and the Web are the infrastructural contexts. The Net by nature (its base protocols) has no national boundaries, no tariffs, no "roaming" between countries and carrier networks. The Web by nature is all about links. But apps aren't about links. They are silos by design. Worse, we don't acquire them in the open marketplace, but through company stores inside Apple, Google and Microsoft.

The second is surveillance.

We are watched constantly on the commercial Net: in our browsers, though our mobile devices and now by our cars as well. Our overlords rationalize surveillance with five assumptions:

  1. People can be better known by machines than by themselves.
  2. People are always looking to buy something.
  3. The best form of advertising is the most personalized.
  4. Secretly following people is good for business, law enforcement, government and other institutional graces of civilization.
  5. Nobody's stopping us, so it must be okay.

We now have massive data centers devoted to crunching data gathered about us and barfing billions (trillions?) of ads back at us everywhere, whether we like it or not, with utter disregard for collateral damage in the form of ill will and waste levels of 99% and up.

For all the talk about being "conversational" and "personal", most marketing on-line today is programmatic: done by robotic algorithms. Fraud is also rampant and too rarely discussed, despite being obvious and huge. Meanwhile, on the lack-of-demand side of our non-relationships with advertising machinery, nearly all of us lie and hide to protect our privacy on-line.

The massively clear market message sent by adblocking (144 million people do it, including 41% of 18–29-year-olds) is also dismissed by the advertising industry, which would have us believe that blocking surveillance (aka tracking) would "break the Web". They forget that both advertising and the Web got along fine without surveillance before the craze started.

No other name-brand entity, with hundreds of millions of users already, is in a better position than Mozilla to help us fight against all this. Mozilla makes the only popular browser that is open source, uncompromised by commercial parentage and on the side of the individual. Yes, the company did get major funding from Google for years, but it also had an extreme need to differentiate Firefox from Chrome. Guiding that differentiation are who they work for—you and me—and with. (In November they partnered with Yahoo to replace Google as "the default search experience".)

It's no accident that Mozilla is now partnering with the Tor Project and the Center for Democracy & Technology to (among other things) integrate Tor with the Firefox code base and to host Tor middle relays. Mozilla is also working on tracking protection services to give users more control. Both of these efforts are part of a new effort called the Polaris Privacy Initiative.

There's also Mozilla's Linux-based Firefox OS for phones. It includes the Personal Interest Dashboard and a new initiative being tested (and not yet public as I write this) called Subscribe2Web. From what I've gathered so far, it offers a new funding mechanism for publishers as an alternative (or a supplement) to advertising models.

The list goes on.

What says the most, at least to me, is a video line in the sand that Mozilla put up on Firefox's 10th anniversary. It's called "Choose Independent". Here's the script:

Who owns the Internet?

The answer is no one.

The answer is everyone.

Which is why thousands of volunteers around the globe give their time and talent.

To create an Internet experience that's owned by everyone.

And doesn't own you.

Where your information isn't being bought and sold.

Where power is in your hands.

Not in a corporate database.

That's why ten years ago we created Firefox.

Nonprofit. Non-corporate. Non-compromised.

Choosing Firefox isn't just choosing a browser.

It's a vote for personal freedom.

It's how we keep your independence online burning bright.

That we is us. No other browser maker with real market heft can say the same thing—or with the same integrity.

It's good to have them on our side.


Celebrating 10 Years of Firefox: https://blog.mozilla.org/blog/2014/11/10/celebrating-10-years-of-firefox-2

Firefox Developer Edition: https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/developer

Tantek Çelik: http://tantek.com

Tantek Çelik, "Why We Need the IndieWeb": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNmKO7Gr4TE&noredirect=1

"Verizon Wireless Injects Identifiers to Track Mobile Customers' Online Activities": http://thehackernews.com/2014/10/verizon-wireless-injects-identifiers-to.html

"Data Monitoring Saves Some People Money on Car Insurance, But Others Will Pay More": http://www.forbes.com/sites/adamtanner/2013/08/14/data-monitoring-saves-some-people-money-on-car-insurance-but-some-will-pay-more

"Digital Ad Fraud Is Rampant. Here's Why So Little Has Been Done About It": http://adage.com/article/digital/online-ad-fraud/292285

"Lying and Hiding in the Name of Privacy": http://customercommons.org/2013/05/08/lying-and-hiding-in-the-name-of-privacy

"2014 Report: Adblocking Goes Mainstream": http://blog.pagefair.com/2014/adblocking-report

The Mozilla Manifesto: https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/about/manifesto

Mozilla Foundation Financing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mozilla_Foundation#Financing

Tor Partnering with Mozilla: https://blog.torproject.org/blog/partnering-mozilla

The Tor Project: https://blog.torproject.org/blog

Center for Democracy & Technology: https://cdt.org

"Introducing Polaris Privacy Initiative to Accelerate User-focused Privacy Online": http://blog.mozilla.org/privacy/2014/11/10/introducing-polaris-privacy-initiative-to-accelerate-user-focused-privacy-online

"Tracking Protection in Firefox": http://monica-at-mozilla.blogspot.com.au/2014/11/tracking-protection-in-firefox.html

Firefox OS for Phones: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefox_OS

Firefox Interest Dashboard: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/firefox-interest-dashboard/?src=cb-dl-recentlyadded

"Firefox: Choose Independent" Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtOGa5M8AuU


Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal