Tue. May 17th, 2022

Mozilla is testing personalized advertising in its Firefox Suggest feature along with sponsored search results, where users said it “helps fund Firefox development.”

Firefox Suggest was first introduced last month in Firefox 92, billed as “a new discovery feature built directly into the browser.”

The feature provides links that users type in the search bar, which can be based on local browser history, bookmarks and open tabs or on “sponsored suggestions from controlled partners”. Currently, users outside the U.S. only see these unconditional local messages.

Firefox Suggest data flow that shows how data now flows to Mozilla and its partners as well as the search engine

Firefox Suggest data flow that shows how data now flows to Mozilla and its partners as well as the search engine

Firefox 93, released earlier this week, adds a new dimension to the Suggest feature, called contextual suggestions. In this case, when the user clicks on a link, additional data is sent to the advertiser, primarily placement data according to the explanation.

The company said the location comes from the client’s IP address and is converted to a “more general location” by Mozilla before being sent to the ad partner. “The data we share with partners does not include personally identifiable information and is only shared when you view or click on a proposal,” Mozilla said.

Notice the careful wording “when you see or click.” Seeing something is different than clicking on it, but it’s hard to understand how the feature can work unless it works before the user sees it. If the user clicks on a link, the target of the link will see the user’s IP number. Mozilla also collects a notice that the suggested link was clicked.

Again, only “a limited number of users in the US” will get this feature first. Users are prompted for a dialog box inviting them to “allow suggestions” before activating the feature. The dialog box is an example of a dark pattern with three options, one highlighted to encourage a reflex click, one in depressing gray to adjust settings and sneaked in at the top right, a small “Not Now” link.

Users see this consent -dialog - see Not now hidden out of sight

Users see this consent dialog – see ‘Not now’ hidden from view

Although the contextual suggestion feature requires this sign-up, the sponsored suggestions are turned on by default — the difference is the data sent to partners who provide the suggestions. Firefox says its “preferred partner” for sponsored results is a company called adMarketplace, which claims to be a “privacy-conscious consumer market.”

The work of Firefox and Mozilla is important for the web community, as it is a standalone browser with its own engine, unlike most others that use the Google-sponsored Chromium engine. These sponsored links sit awkwardly with Mozilla’s claim to be proponents of confidential information — but like many other open source companies, Mozilla is in the position of not being able to charge directly for its products, so look for other means to earn money on them. A large portion of its revenue comes from Google, which pays to be the default search engine in Firefox.

Other new features in Firefox 93 include blocking downloads via unencrypted connections, though users will see an option to allow downloads (again in a depressing gray).

There are also new privacy features, including SmartBlock 3.0, which Mozilla said has “greatly improved support” for forging Google Analytics scripts to address sites that block content for users they are unable to track. There is also better protection against HTTP redirect headers that send too much information and block downloads in frames marked as sandbox.

Firefox on Windows gets a new feature for automatically reading tabs when the memory is “critically low”. Unloaded tabs are reloaded when the user switches to them. The idea is to reduce crashes in Firefox without memory.

The full list of what’s new in Firefox 93 is here. ®

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