Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thoughts on Mozilla and Privacy

Mozilla has followed Microsoft's lead, and committed to embracing some form of a do not track mechanism in the Firefox browser as soon as early 2011. While this is of course great news, the browser vendor still has a long way to go, particularly if it wants to be able to compete on privacy.

Do Not Track

At a presentation earlier this week, Mozilla's new CEO announced that the Firefox browser would soon include enhanced privacy features, stating that "technology that supports something like a Do Not Track button is needed and we will deliver in the first part of next year." This is great news for users of Firefox, and I look forward to seeing Mozilla taking an active role in the Do Not Track debate as it continues to evolve in Washington, DC.

Of course, Mozilla is not the only browser vendor to make a major privacy announcement in the last month -- just a few weeks ago, Microsoft revealed that the forthcoming beta of IE9 would include support for an ad tracking blacklist. In order to fully analyze Mozilla's announcement, and the organization's reasons for doing so, one must consider it in light of Microsoft's recent announcement, as well as the recent press coverage that both companies have received over their internal deliberations regarding privacy features.

Should Mozilla compete on privacy?

Years ago, when there were just two major browsers, Mozilla had a clear identity. Firefox was the faster, more stable, more secure, standards-compliant browser, with a large number of rich 3rd-party add-ons, including AdBlock Plus. Compared to the sluggish, buggy, popup-ad plagued Internet Explorer browser that is pre-installed on each new Windows PC, the decision to install Firefox was a no-brainer. Those consumers still using IE weren't doing so by choice, for the most part, but were using it because they didn't know there were other options -- hell, as this video demonstrates, they likely didn't even know what a browser is.

Fast forward to 2010, and the browser market has significantly changed.

Apple's 7 year old Safari browser totally dominates the company's iOS platform (primarily due to the company's terms of service which long banned competing browsers), comes pre-installed on all Macintosh computers, and has even made its way on to quite a few Windows computers by sneakily leveraging the iTunes software security update process.

Even more interesting has been the rise of Google's two-year old Chrome browser. It matches Mozilla on standards compliance, supports its own 3rd party extension ecosystem (including AdBlock software), and more importantly, it handily beats the currently shipping version of Firefox on both speed and stability. This has lead to a significant number of tech-savvy users ditching Firefox for Chrome.

The reason I mention this isn't to take a position on which browser is faster or more stable -- merely that Mozilla is now under increasing competitive pressure from Google and Apple, competition that simply didn't exist when IE was the only other game in town.

More than ever, Mozilla needs to be able to differentiate its product, and compete on features that it can win on -- beating Google on speed may be possible, but it'll be tough. Beating Google on privacy should be easy though...

Competing on privacy means more transparency

[Warning, browser vendor insider baseball below]

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Mozilla had "killed a powerful new tool to limit tracking under pressure from an ad-industry executive." The feature would have made all 3rd party tracking cookies "session cookies" by default (and thus cause them to be deleted after users shut down their browser).

[Full disclosure: I chat regularly with the WSJ journalists covering the web privacy beat, I provided them with background information on this story, and tipped them off to the communication between Simeon Simeonov and Mozilla.]

After post-publication complaints from Mozilla, the Journal added a correction note to the bottom of the article, stating:
Mozilla Corp. said it removed a privacy feature from a development version of its Firefox Web browsing software on June 8 because of concerns inside the company that the feature would spur more surreptitious forms of tracking and hamper the performance of companies that provide Web statistics and host content for other companies. The removal occurred before a conversation between advertising industry executive Simeon Simeonov and Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's vice president of products, which took place on June 9. A Nov. 30 Marketplace article about the removal incorrectly said that the feature was removed on June 10 in response to the concerns raised by Mr. Simeonov during his conversation with Mr. Sullivan.

Even after the correction, the article was not well received by members of the Mozilla Corporation. Asa Dotzler, Mozilla's Director of Community Development, described the Journal article as "bullshit" and "a complete fabrication designed to smear Mozilla and generate controversy and pageviews."

According to Dotzler:

The real timeline was this: Mozilla engineers prototyped the feature and put it into testing. Mozilla engineers discussed what kind of impact it might have on the Web and concluded that not only would it not be very effective and have some undesirable side effects, but that it would drive advertisers to build worse experiences where users had even less privacy and control. So Mozilla scrapped the feature and started work on designing a better feature. Later, some advertising reps met with Mozilla to let Mozilla know what they were up to on the privacy front and to talk with Mozilla about what it was up to.

I have had a few back and forth emails with Asa over the last few days, and have been frustrated by the experience. In any case, I disagree with him, and I actually believe that the WSJ's original timeline is pretty solid.

My understanding is that the timeline is something like this:

May 12, 2010: Mozilla developer Dan Witte files a bug in the Mozilla bug database, proposing a change to the 3rd party cookie handling code.

May 19: Dan creates patch to implement proposed change, uploads patch to bug tracking system for discussion/review.

May 24: Code review and approved by Mozilla developer Shawn Wilsher.

May 28: Dan's patch is merged into Firefox developer tree.

June 3: Word of patch reaches Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum, who blogs and tweets it.

June 4: Simeon Simeonov emails Mozilla CEO John Lilly, after seeing Jules' blog post.

(How do I know Simeon contacted John? Because Simeon called me up at 1:45PM EST on June 4 to tell me he had done so, after which, we spent 20 minutes debating the impact it would have on the ad industry and user privacy).

June 4, 7PM PST: Mozilla VP of Engineering Mike Shaver posts note to bug report, noting that it is a pretty major change, one that he was not aware of, and that there should be "a fair bit of discussion" about it.

June 8: Patch reverted.

While the WSJ's correction notes that the patch was reverted by Mozilla before Simeon Simeonov and Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's vice president of products, spoke on June 9, the story also mentions an earlier communication that took place between Mozilla's CEO and Simeon -- an email communication which no one at Mozilla has directly denied. This occurred several days before the patch was reverted, and 10 hours before Mozilla VP of Engineering Mike Shaver first commented on the patch.

Let me be clear - I do not believe that Mozilla buckled under pressure from the advertising industry. What I do believe, however, is that Mozilla's senior management had no idea about the existence of this patch, that it had been merged into the Mozilla developer tree several days before, or the major impact it would have on the Internet advertising industry until Mozilla's CEO was contacted by an advertising industry executive.

Once Mozilla's CEO received the email, he likely forwarded it to several people within Mozilla, and I suspect there were dozens of emails sent back and forth between management and the engineers about the patch and its impact on the Internet. As outsiders, we (Mozilla's users) are not privy to those conversations -- instead, we simply see Mike Shaver's comment about there needing to be more discussion about the issue, and then a few days later, a brief note is posted to the bug to say that the patch was reverted.

Yesterday, Mitchell Baker, the Chair of the Mozilla Foundation posted a note to her own blog, taking issue with the Journal article. In her response, Baker claimed that the WSJ story was "not accurate in any shape or form", adding that "decision-making at Mozilla is based on the criteria in the Mozilla Manifesto".

One of the principles in the Mozilla Manifesto is that "Transparent community-based processes promote participation, accountability, and trust."

Again, let me be clear - I think there are legitimate reasons for the decision to revert the 3rd party cookie handling patch, and that Mozilla's entire approach to cookies should be rewritten to better protect user privacy. However, I think it is pretty difficult for Mozilla's executives to argue that the decision to revert the patch was done according to the criteria in the Mozilla Manifesto. Simply put, a large part of the discussion happened behind closed doors, in email messages between Mozilla employees, none of which have been made public. There was very little transparency in the process.

There is a pretty significant missing part of the puzzle here, and I think that Mozilla has a responsibility to shine a bit more light on the internal discussions surrounding this patch.

Conclusion

I am a proud and happy Firefox user. I am on good terms with several Mozilla employees, and I have even developed a successful Firefox add-on, which was downloaded more than 700,000 times before I sold it earlier this year. The computer I am typing this blog post on was paid for with the profits from that sale. I want Mozilla to continue to enjoy great success.

I have watched over the last year or two as Google has eaten away at Mozilla's speed and performance advantage, and so I desperately want Mozilla to find an area in which it can out compete Google. I really do believe that privacy is that area.

However, for Mozilla to win on privacy, it needs to put users first, 100% of the time, and it needs to be very open about it. As an organization that receives the vast majority of its funding from an advertising company (Google), Mozilla needs to hold itself to the highest standard of ethics and permit its users to know the reasoning behind design decisions, particularly those that will impact Google and the other advertising networks.

4 comments:

Security Retentive said...

Chris - Is the subtext in your last paragraph that in this case Mozilla didn't put users first, or that that is the measuring stick for all of their actions?

I don't want to put words into your mouth but I'm not aware that consensus exists on what users want as the default behavior here, and so if you mean to say their change wasn't putting users first, I'll need a little more data to make me believe that.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that firefox reverted feature something along the lines of "Accept only cookies from the site I visit" feature included in opera for quite some time now, or maybe along those of "Delete new cookies when exiting Opera". I've had those set for the exact reason of defeating tracking cookies. see http://help.opera.com/Linux/11.00/en/cookies.html

Anonymous said...

I think that Mozilla still fails to deal with the LSO issue is evidence that they are not putting users first. Users shouldn't need a flurry of addons to have a measure of privacy. It should either an easy option or the default.

Anonymous said...

That's right; FF is NOT putting their users first. There is NO reason (other than that I really love FF) that I should need to install 6 (!) additional FF-plugins, in order to have "some" control of my browsing privacy experience! This is getting ridiculous!

I'm currently wrestling with:
+ Adblock Plus
+ HTTPS-Everywhere
+ Better Privacy (LSO's)
+ Selective Cookie Delete
+ NoScript
+ ProxyTool (4 faking User Agent & Referer)

In addition to my 20 other Extensions and 10 other plugins used for completely other but normal things.