As Firefox turns 10, Mozilla trumpets privacy

Privacy focus seems at odds with Mozilla's biggest revenue source, Google, but contract expires in December

Mozilla Firefox mug
Areta do Bem (CC BY 2.0)

Mozilla today pulled out the PR stops to trumpet the 10th anniversary of Firefox, and in celebration released an interim build of Firefox 33 that includes a new privacy tool and access to the DuckDuckGo search engine.

Firefox 1.0 was released on Nov. 9, 2004, at a time when Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) had a stranglehold on the browser space, having driven Netscape -- Firefox's forerunner in many ways -- out of the market two years before. Mozilla has been widely credited with restarting browser development, which had been moribund under IE.

Today's Firefox 33.1 offered DuckDuckGo as a new pre-installed search engine choice, joining Amazon, Bing, Google, Yahoo and others.

"DuckDuckGo gives you search results without tracking who you are or what you search for," said Johnathan Nightingale, vice president of Firefox, in a blog post. "Other engines may use tracking to enhance your search results, but we believe that's a choice you should get to make for yourself."

Nightingale did not mention Google by name as one of the engines that "use tracking," but Google is the default search engine for most Firefox installations. New installations of Firefox 33.1 retain Google as the default, and current users' choices remain unchanged.

He also called out a new feature, dubbed "Forget," that has been added to Firefox. "Forget gives you an easy way to tell Firefox to clear out some of your recent activity," Nightingale wrote.

Forget, which must be added to the toolbar by the user, serves as a substitute for the more complex private browsing feature -- called "Private Window" in Firefox -- and the browser's already-available "Clear Recent History," which retroactively eliminates traces of where users have gone and what they've done on the Web.

"Many of our users share a computer with friends or family, and it's easy to forget to open a private browsing window first; with Forget, clearing that information is quick, and easy to understand," Nightingale said.

The focus on privacy was not limited to Firefox.

Mozilla's CEO, Chris Beard, also introduced a new project, called "Polaris," that he described as "a new strategic initiative to bring together the best and brightest to explore new approaches to enhance privacy controls online."

Elsewhere, Mozilla spelled out Polaris, which has a pair of partners at the start: the Tor Project and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT). Mozilla will host its own Tor middle relays, anonymous servers that receive Tor traffic and pass it along in an effort to improve the Tor network's overall performance and increase its capacity.

Mozilla also said it is working on another privacy tool that would replace the lifeless "Do Not Track" initiative with something that "protects those users that want to be free from invasive tracking without penalizing advertisers and content sites that respect a user's preferences."

Mozilla had been a strong proponent of Do Not Track, and in 2013 even said it would take the more drastic step of automatically blocking all third-party cookies. The latter was scuttled after online advertisers accused Mozilla of harboring "techno-libertarians and academic elites who believe in liberty and freedom ... as long as they get to decide the definitions of liberty and freedom." Instead, Mozilla partnered with Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society to create something labeled the "Cookie Clearinghouse," or CCH.

The privacy drumbeat, whether the addition of DuckDuckGo or the wider-ranging Polaris, seems at odds with Mozilla's primary revenue source, Google. In 2012, Mozilla's deal with Google produced $274 million in revenue, or 88% of the organization's total income for the year.

Mozilla's deal with Google will expire before the end of the year: In December 2011, the companies announced a renewal.

"Mozilla is currently in the midst of negotiations," a company spokesman said today, but declined to identify the partner or partners it was negotiating with. "These discussions are subject to traditional confidentiality requirements and as such, we are not at liberty to disclose further details at this time."

Complicating matters for Mozilla is the significant decline of Firefox since the last agreement with Google. According to U.S.-based Net Applications, Firefox's user share has fallen 36% since December 2011; Irish measurement vendor StatCounter, meanwhile, said Firefox's usage share was down 26% during that same period.

Firefox 33.1 for Windows, OS X and Linux can be downloaded from Mozilla's website. Users of the browser will receive the update automatically.

Firefox 33.1 privacy

Firefox 33.1's new 'Forget' tool makes it easier to retroactively scrub evidence of where the browser went and what it was told to do.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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