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Firefox-Google marriage on shaky ground?

AdBlock tryst threatens web browser wedlock

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Comment Yes, Firefox reached a major milestone this week, surpassing 400 million downloads worldwide. But that's just the good news. There's another story swirling around the famously open source web browser - and it's a little less sunny.

Last week, The New York York Times questioned whether the growing popularity of a Firefox extension called AdBlock Plus poses a threat to the ad-driven business models of entertainment, media, and search sites across the web. If enough people install the extension and other ad-killing browser gizmos, The Times asked, could they chip away at the bottom line of companies like CNN, Microsoft, and Google?

With roughly 2.5 million people using AdBlock Plus - and 300,000 to 400,000 more downloading the tool each month, according to its developer - this is certainly a valid question. But there's a second question worth asking, a question looming over the future of Firefox itself.

According to internet rumor, Google provides almost all of the revenue for the Mozilla Corp. - the commercial wing of the Mozilla Foundation, makers of Firefox. You know how it works: Google ponies up the dough, and Mozilla ties Firefox to certain Google tools. Most notably, Firefox uses a customized version of Google.com as its default home page.

The question is: As more and more people install AdBlock Plus, which is officially recommended by Mozilla, will Google continue to fund the browser?

When we asked Google for an answer, the company stayed quiet, as it did when The Times came calling. And we're still awaiting an email from Mozilla on the matter. But it isn't hard to connect the dots.

According to a March 2006 rumor trumpeted by Weblogs founder Jason Calacanis, Mozilla pulled in $72m in 2005, and most of that came from Google. In a subsequent blog post, Mozilla board member Chris Blizzard wouldn't verify the rumor, but he said these figures were "not off by an order of magnitude."

Meanwhile, AdBlock can be downloaded from the Mozilla website, where it's listed as one of the most popular Firefox extensions. And yes, it does a wonderful job of blocking ads on Google's AdSense network - not to mention banners served up by DoubleClick, the company Google's trying so very hard to purchase.

No, that doesn't mean Google is dead-set on pulling its Mozilla dollars. After all, it could simply crack down on the use of AdBlock, a free download developed by an independent German programmer named Wladimir Palant. As The Times discussed, there's already a mini-movement among ad-laden websites to, well, block AdBlock.

Oklahoma-based web developer Danny Carlton has succeeded in rejecting any user who visits his sites with AdBlock Plus installed, and he insists that each and every site owner has the right to do the same. Palant and his cohorts, Carlton says, shouldn't be allowed to block AdBlock blocking.

"It comes down to whether they're going to be like adults and support the concept of freedom, allowing site owners to block AdBlock users, or they're going to be like children screaming for more bread and circuses," Carlton told The Reg.

But if Google jumped on board with this sort of AdBlock crackdown, it would surely anger the masses, undermining the we're-in-it-for-the-little-guy attitude the company tries so hard to foster. "Google could step into this very easily. They could shut AdBlock down entirely," Carlton said. "But then they look like the big-bad meanie."

In the end, it might be easier for Google to break off its relationship with Mozilla, leaving the foundation struggling for revenue. Sure, Google would lose the traffic driven by those less than 400 million users, but there's nothing stopping the ridiculously-rich Mountain Viewers from building their own browser - or buying a Mozilla competitor that doesn't block quite so many ads. Opera comes to mind.

Then again, if Google dumped Mozilla, it would still look like a big-bad meanie. No wonder the company won't grant us an interview.

Update

Still no interview, but Google did send us a brief statement. They told us to attribute it to a spokesperson: "Mozilla is a valued business partner because many users utilize Firefox to access Google products and services. We will continue to work with a variety of technology providers, including Mozilla, to ensure our mutual users have the best experience possible with our products and services."

Ensure our mutual users have the best experience possible? That sounds like they're not too concerned about AdBlock chipping away at the bottom line. We shall see. ®

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