Mozilla Could Alienate Users with New Firefox Browser Ads (UPDATED)

Once considered an "anti-establishment" browser, Mozilla is going mainstream by pushing ads to new users, but the plan could easily backfire, according to CIO.com blogger Bill Snyder.

UPDATED. The chairwoman of Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit that funds the development of Firefox, 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 in a blog post. "In fact, many of us feel responsible to do exactly this."

Firefox, the open source, somewhat anti-establishment browser, is going mainstream, with a plan to put ads in front of users, the Mozilla Foundation announced this week. For now, the ads will be confined to the tabs page of new users, but if the initial rollout succeeds, I expect them to spread.

Publishers will be able to purchase sponsored tiles that will appear alongside normal tiles, with a clear “promoted” label, Daren Herman, the foundation's VP of content, said in a blog post.

According to Herman, the Directory Tiles – he doesn’t want to call them ads – are there to improve the experience by suggesting pre-packaged content for first-time users. “Some of these tile placements will be from the Mozilla ecosystem, some will be popular websites in a given geographic location, and some will be sponsored content from hand-picked partners to help support Mozilla’s pursuit of our mission,” says Herman.

Mozilla has not yet said when Directory Tiles will start to appear.

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Sponsored content is almost always a euphemism for ads or marketing material.

Although Herman doesn’t say why Mozilla is making the move at this time, it’s not too hard to make an educated guess. Roughly 90 percent of Mozilla’s revenue comes from Google, which pays the non-profit foundation for making its search engine Firefox’s default. Since Firefox is losing market share, and Google has its own browser – Chrome – it seems likely that the next time the agreement is negotiated, there will be less in it for Mozilla. (I asked Mozilla to confirm this and a few other points but have not yet heard back. I’ll update this post when I do.)

Can a user opt out? There’s no mention of that in Herman’s blog. Without having seen the new page, there’s no way to know how intrusive it will feel, but if it the ads are confined to the tabs page, they probably won’t be any more annoying than the ads that currently follow you all over the Web.

And speaking of ads that follow you, Mozilla made a splash last year when it chose to block third-party cookies (a favored device of advertising companies) by default and also created a do-not-track feature that makes it harder for companies to serve targeted advertising to users.

Given that history, Mozilla's decision to make nice with the advertising world is somewhat surprising, but considering the financial realities the foundation faces, it’s not exactly shocking. Still, I suspect that Mozilla will get an earful from Firefox users once Directory Tiles appear. And the volume of those protests could have a significant impact on the future of the advertising initiative.

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