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Mozilla's top exec defends in-Firefox ads, revenue search

Mitchell Baker acknowledges supporters are 'suspicious'

February 16, 2014 07:31 AM ET

Computerworld - The chairwoman of Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit that funds the development of Firefox, last week defended the decision to pursue in-browser ads, saying that it's important to generate revenue.

"To explicitly address the question of whether we care about generating revenue and sustaining Mozilla's work, the answer is yes," Mitchell Baker, former CEO of Mozilla Corp., the subsidiary responsible for Firefox, and now the chair of the parent foundation, wrote on a blog Thursday. "In fact, many of us feel responsible to do exactly this."

Mitchell Baker
Mitchell Baker, chairwoman of Mozilla Foundation. (Image: Mozilla.)

Baker was responding to questions and concerns raised earlier in the week after Mozilla announced "Directory Tiles," an under-development Firefox feature that would display sponsored thumbnails -- advertisements -- in the New Tabs page of new users of the browser.

In her post, Baker acknowledged that Firefox users in general, and those more intimately involved with Mozilla -- employees and code contributors -- were by nature suspicious of any connection to commercial or business needs, including producing revenue.

"Pretty much anytime we talk about revenue at Mozilla people get suspicious," she said. "Mozillians get suspicious, and our supporters get suspicious. There's some value in that, as it reinforces our commitment to user experience and providing value to our users."

But she argued the obvious point that money is necessary to fund the foundation, and thus, Firefox and the group's other projects. And she said that money could be raised without damaging the organization's stance on user privacy or harming its reputation with its users.

"When we have ideas about how content might be useful to people, we look at whether there is a revenue possibility, and if that would annoy people or bring something potentially useful," Baker said. "Ads in search turn out to be useful."

The concept of Directory Tiles as presented last week was straight-forward: When new users start Firefox, they will see pre-populated tiles, some of them advertisements, on the New Tab page. For long-time Firefox users, that page, which has room for nine thumbnails, shows the most-frequently-visited websites. Someone new to Firefox, of course, would see nothing. To jump-start the experience, Mozilla will fill the New Page spots.

Two or three of the nine thumbnails would be devoted to such ads, Baker said, and under normal circumstances, they would disappear within 30 days as the new user browsed the Web enough for Firefox to replace those ads with the user's most visited URLs.

Other Mozilla executives joined Baker in promoting the Directory Tiles idea or in providing more detail about how the ad program would work. Darren Herman, a former advertising executive and venture capitalist hired by Mozilla last year to lead a new content services group specifically tasked to find new sources of revenue, contributed an FAQ that outlined the parameters of Directory Tiles. There, Herman pointed out, as did Baker, that the ads would be served without relying on any tracking of a user's movements through the Internet. Instead, the ads would only examine the user's physical location to, for example, provide ads pertinent to that locale or in its language.

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