Firefox: freedom's just another word for 'kerching!'
Mozilla's mission to enrich the web
Open...And Shut Apparently, one can have too much freedom.
That's one takeaway from The Wall Street Journal's revelation that Mozilla killed a new Firefox tool, which would have limited advertisers' ability to track users across the web, allegedly under pressure from the advertising industry. Sure, Mozilla is a nonprofit and arguably not under the thumb of anyone, but it does get the vast majority of its revenue from advertising-funded Google, and so must be under a certain amount of pressure - subconscious or otherwise - to cater to advertisers' needs.
However, Mozilla vice president Mike Shaver disputes the allegation that Mozilla buckled under pressure, and in the process gives a clue as to whose interests Mozilla serves:
I wouldn't say we are under pressure from advertisers. They are a big part of the economics of the web. We want to understand what their needs are.
Mozilla has also long adhered to its mission of "promot[ing] openness, innovation, and opportunity on the web." Normally, we assume this mission applies only to end-users like you or I as we browse the web, and that "unlimited freedom" must be the right way to serve such interests.
Maybe. Maybe not.
It's quite possible - indeed, probable - that the best way for Mozilla to fulfill its mission is precisely to limit the openness of the web. At least a bit. Why? Because end-users aren't the only ones with rights and needs online, a point Luis Villa elegantly made years ago.
It's not a one-way, free-for-all for end-users. Advertisers, developers and enterprises who employ end-users among others all factor into Mozilla's freedom calculus. Or should.
The freedom fighters of the open-source movement may howl in rage at this, but there's good precedent for Mozilla's stance. Richard Stallman, for starters.
Stallman has long criticized the more pragmatic half of the open-source community for its somewhat libertarian approach to licensing, a la Apache and BSD. Yet in an age of web-delivered software-as-services, an age that treats Stallman's GPL with absolute indifference, Stallman expressly demurred from baking in a broader definition of "distribution" into version three of the GPL. My sources suggest that this was a direct consequence of Google applying pressure to the Free Software Foundation.
When then-general counsel of the FSF, Eben Moglen, gave a keynote at the Open Source Business Conference in 2007, he was asked about the FSF's decision not to close the so-called "ASP loophole" in the GPL that allowed companies like Google to heavily modify GPL code and distribute it as a service, without contributing commensurately back. In early drafts of GPLv3, the FSF had defined "distribution" to effectively bar network-based software distribution, but in the final draft it was purged, and then whimpered its way into the GPL's ugly stepchild, Affero GPL.
Moglen danced around the issue and finally gave an answer much like Mozilla's: there are different kinds of users of software on the web and the FSF had to balance the needs of end-users with intermediate users like Google.
If that sounds like a reasonable position, it's because it is. But many in the free-software camp are so hell-bent on freedom that they forget that it's a much more nuanced concept than they usually suspect.
Red Hat is another good example of this. One of the big challenges of open-source software has been finding successful revenue models to pay for its development. This is why most open-source software development - at least, within the big projects like Linux - is done by paid developers who are employed by companies selling proprietary software or hardware.
Red Hat is the exception to this rule, and looks set to top $1bn in annual revenue in 2011. But even Red Hat has managed this impressive feat by taking a "mostly open" approach to its licensing/contracting strategy. Sure, you can get the raw source code from Red Hat, just as CentOS does. But if you want it packaged and easily delivered, you're going to have to sign up as a customer.
Some - including individuals within my own company, Canonical - call this "proprietary Linux." I call it smart business, and a fair trade-off, one that enables Red Hat to contribute nearly double the amount of code to the Linux kernel than any other company while minting nearly $1bn selling otherwise free code.
That's the tradeoff. Such tradeoffs may drive purists like Henrik Ingo from MariaDB mad, but they draw widespread, mainstream user (and developer) adoption.
Mozilla, then, isn't just doing itself a favor by carefully considering how to implement do-not-track functionality in Firefox. It's doing us all a favor: users, advertisers, developers, and more. ®
Matt Asay is chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears every Friday on The Register.
Whose tool is Firefox?
Is the web browser my tool to use to view and interact with web sites? Or is it a web site's tool to use to present itself to me?
On the other hand, they need to make some money somewhere, to stay in business.
Still, I think if I want to use Firefox with an anti-tracking tool, that is also up to me. And if web sites don't want to deal with me on that basis, that is up to them.
Maybe I'm missing something.
If I see a advertising poster in the street I might stop and read it if I have time. If someone stuffs a flyer under my nose then, without exception, I'll tell them I'm not interested (and might not be too polite about it).
Websites are the same. A discreet advertising strip down the side might get my attention if I'm not too engrossed. A popup or animated graphic is an instant NO. Because of the latter, it has become necessary for me to employ ad-blockers etc. if I am to have any hope of getting the information I want without being distracted and annoyed.
If I ever get the idea that anyone has been attempting to find out about me and my habits in order to sell me something then that is instant 100% hostility. I will indeed remember the company, but in the most negative terms possible.
Sorry, this is a whole heap of steaming turd.
Before you click "downvote", please read my post.
I get it. I really do. The free-for-all approach has its limitations. Specifically when you want to get accurate information for free. Well, it comes from somewhere, it is verified, it is put on-line. For a brilliant example, the next time you look up an address or plan a route on Google Maps, spare a thought for those who put the map together, made it match the satellite photography, added Streetview, made it into a simple web product, host billions of images... it's an insanely massive project and it isn't free... except to us. Their funding? No doubt advertising and paid links and such. The same could be said for many sites.
However, and this is the extremely crucial crux of the matter - it is a browser's duty to do what it can in a world stacked heavily against the end-user. WE have perceived freedoms. We can choose what sites we go to and whether or not we are willing to pay for content. But sites carry Ts&Cs, and for subscriptions (even free ones) you are expected to read and agree to those Ts&Cs. All content pasted up on The Wired has a copyright. Some is a free-for-all, but much useful content isn't. The law states that if it doesn't say, full copyright should be assumed. Look down and see "© Copyright 1998–2010".
Where is all of this for user tracking and profiling? For God's sake, we don't know who the hell is tracking us at any given time without clueing up and wading around the page sources. We all know Google. What about that damned Facebook "Like" button that is turning up everywhere? Yup... But who? And how? And how much data? And what rights of examination and/or correction? The law, if ones even exist, give us "opt-out" - which means unless we understand the system and opt out everywhere necessary, we'll be automatically opted in.
But it is worse. Very much worse. At exactly what point did these trackers enter into an arrangement with us? Oh, I see. To "use" a Google service we have to agree by their terms, but to profile us they have to agree to sod all with us. They'll just use our visits and browsing habits for... actually... I have no idea. There's a lot you can do beyond "more relevant ads".
Don't get me wrong. I'm not against reasonable advertising on a third-party site. I feel it it is pretty much a necessary evil, akin to adverts on TV. What I'm against is the mechanics of the profiling. It is too invasive with too little accountability.
THIS is why it is the duty of a modern browser to do what it can to look after what little privacy we have. If user profiling is something that needs to be kept a secret and requiring a little leaning on the Mozilla Foundation, one could rightly question the ethics of this behaviour and as a consequence perhaps we ought to consider carefully where we place our trust.