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Mozilla taps in-Firefox ads as it searches for more revenue

February 12, 2014 01:51 PM ET

Yet earlier this week, Rothenberg shared the stage with Herman at the IAB's conference.

Mozilla never promoted the block-third-party-cookies feature to the final, polished version of Firefox, although a spokesman today said, "We continue to test this patch as part of a number of proposals to give users more control over their online experience."

"We are gratified that Mozilla has a greater focus on digital ad products and welcome the opportunity to work more closely with them in this shared space," Mike Zaneis, the IAB's general counsel who also leads the group's public policy, said in a statement Wednesday.

But Bidel, of Forrester, did not see the tiles project as a turnabout by Mozilla from its opposition to ad tracking. "I haven't perceived Mozilla as anti-advertising," said Bidel. "They've been anti-cookie and anti-tracking, and critical of the lack of transparency. To me, that's what Mozilla's been."

But the reaction from some long-time Mozilla contributors was negative.

"To be clear, I am skeptical about the value of populating those blank tiles in general, but it is specifically the notion of 'sponsored' tiles that is a terrible idea, which we should immediately recant, possibly to the extent of claiming that it was a joke, even if it wasn't," wrote Zach Weinberg on a planning discussion forum hosted by Mozilla. Weinberg is a security researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who formerly was a platform engineer at Mozilla.

Weinberg and some others objected to the idea of ads within Firefox, seeing the move as a step on a slippery slope that could result in future data mining of users' browsing.

In truth, Mozilla is already toying with something similar. In December, the group announced it was pilot-testing what it called "user personalized content," which would include ads, based on Firefox's browser history.

Others on the same thread -- including several current Mozilla managers and executives -- defended the Directory Tiles concept against critics like Weinberg.

"Can privacy-preserving ad targeting be done? I'm genuinely not sure, but we're never going to be able to find out if we simply said, 'We will never do targeted ads,'" wrote Gervase Markham, whose title is "Governator," whatever that means, at Mozilla.

"Darren [Herman]'s team looked at [the New Tab experience for new users], and realized that we could make this better for users and generate income for Mozilla if we were smart about it," said Johnathan Nightingale, vice president of Firefox, on the same developers' forum. "Pre-populating those tiles, like we already pre-populate search providers, is just a better experience."

Nightingale also assured those reading the forum that Directory Tiles, like all features added to Firefox, would go through testing, gather feedback and undergo changes before it's shipped with the browser. "This is early days, so if there aren't answers to some of those things yet, it's mostly because we're figuring them out together, not because they're devious answers that we haven't figured out how to 'message.'"

Bidel declined to speculate on how Firefox's users would react to the ad idea. "But I imagine that they have a very loyal user base," she said, implying that she thought any backlash would be short-lived.

But Mozilla said the sponsored tiles might not be limited to just new users who needed their New Tab page populated. "Directory Tiles are aimed at first time users of Firefox at this stage," a spokesperson said in an email today. "We will evaluate whether it makes sense to extend this after taking into account initial feedback."

covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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