This post is a summary of some of the things that I dislike about Mozilla and Firefox. Given how passionate I am about user rights, privacy, decentralization, FOSS, etc, sometimes these remarks surprise people. I still am grateful Mozilla exists, I still use some of their products, and there are many amazingly smart and good people there However, donations to Mozilla for the purpose of improving Firefox are ineffective and are better spent elsewhere, and I really wish they would stay focused on making better products.
Mozilla has a lot of money, most of which does not go towards Firefox
Mozilla constantly mentions that they are a nonprofit, encouraging you to donate to them to help Make The Internet A Better Place. While the Mozilla Foundation is legally classified as a nonprofit, their subsidiary, Mozilla Corporation, is not. Its revenue is around $450,000,000 per year, almost all of which comes from their contracts with Google (Yandex and Baidu as well). Google pays Mozilla half a billion dollars per year because Mozilla has contractually agreed to keep Google as their default search engine, and presumably this gives Google a net profit, as having more ad views and user information is very, very valuable (I heard an explanation that Google also wants to avoid antitrust issues, but I’m unsure of the veracity of that).
The CEO of Mozilla (both the foundation and the corporation), Mitchell Baker, had an annual income of over $3,000,000 (official source, cannot find 2020 document yet) or around $1,000/hour, which has managed to increase for several years in a row, despite metrics related to Mozilla’s primary product, their web browser, significantly decreasing (do note: her salary is technically from the for-profit, not the non-profit). In case you haven’t seen a report on browser market share in the last few years, Firefox currently has around 3-4% of the market share, with the highest estimates I can find being around 7-8%.
Most of Mozilla’s spending does not go to software development nor Firefox, but rather to administration, marketing, and similar expenses (this is true both for the non-profit and for-profit, but the non-profit’s information is publicly available). Checking their most recent form 990, there was $4.5M spent on grants to random universities and groups, $3M spent on management fees, $1.8M spent on travel fees, and $0.8M spent on conference fees, which combined is significantly more than what is spent on employee compensation. This means when you donate to Mozilla’s nonprofit, your money is more likely to be spent on universities, management, and travel than an employee’s compensation.
Although there are not many publicly available details about the specific spending of the for-profit section of Mozilla (which would be ~10x more), the distributions appear to be relateively similar from what sources I can find. One reason why Mozilla spends so much on marketing is because their products are generally not as good as their competitors’, and attempting to purchase your way to a larger userbase is an expensive and constant uphill battle.
Firefox does little to stop you from being tracked by Google
One of the most popular reasons to use Firefox instead of Chrome is a dislike for being tracked by Google. While it’s true that Google recieves more information from Chrome users than it does from Firefox users, the majority of information flow remains a constant, and Mozilla relies on a plethora of Google services for basic browser functionality. Here are some examples:
- Firefox uses Google search by default and sends all queries/address bar typing to Google
- Firefox uses Google’s safe browsing service for ‘unrecognized downloads’, sending Google the filename and url that you visited
- Firefox uses Google services for basic APIs such as their location API, despite Mozilla having attempted its own implementation, which one may assume they’d use. As Firefox polls your OS for information to send to this API, this sends information such as your wifi-network or nearby phone towers in addition to your IP address and a biweekly-rotating Google client identifier.
Apart from Firefox relying heavily on Google’s services, unless you use extensive tracking/blocking addons, you’re being tracked everywhere you go to begin with, as the majority of websites use Google Analytics, Google APIs, Google fonts, Google ReCAPTCHA, among many others.
There is truth to Mozilla working on and implementing important privacy improvements in browsers, such as DNS over HTTPS, third party cookie blocking by default, tracker blocking, and so on. Some of these appear to be helpful, however are easily mitigated by other parties, while others are more questionable (for example, the implemention method of rolling out DoH by opting users into it, bypassing their network configuration preferences, and sending all DNS queries to a single company’s servers, was not optimal). As of firefox 86 on Feb 23rd 2021, Firefox appears to be attempting full per-site cookie isolation, which if successful and usable could be a great improvement here.
Firefox includes tracking, advertisements, and backdoors
Mozilla takes almost every chance it can to tell you how much they love your privacy, and for that reason the tracking and default features that are included in distributions of Firefox are pretty surprising (this does not mean Firefox is worse at this than other browsers!).
By default, firefox shares all of the following with Mozilla:
– the number of open tabs and windows, the number of websites visited, the number and type of addons installed, the length of your browser session, all interaction events with ‘Firefox features offered by Mozilla or our partners’, your device information, OS information, hardware information, and your IP address
- “Firefox uses your IP address to suggest relevant content based on your country and state”
- “When you choose to click on a Snippet link, we may receive data about the link you followed”
- “Firefox sends basic information about unrecognized downloads to Google’s SafeBrowsing Service, including the filename and the URL it was downloaded from”
Some of this information is reasonable, such as crash reports and the base OS/Firefox version, but I still found this to be more than many may expect.
Firefox now comes with a feature called studies, which allows Mozilla to remotely install and run custom changes and featuresets to your browser without asking you. This is turned on by default, which is generally all that matters as almost no users go through every setting in software to turn things off manually. In the past Mozilla used their ability to remotely control browser installations to install an addon into users’ browsers that gave them cryptic messages which were intended to be advertising for a TV show. I don’t know why they thought that was a good idea, as it seemed to be almost unanimously agreed upon that it was a terrible idea, but it still happened. If you visit about:studies in Firefox you can see which studies you have/are currently participating in. I could not find any resource from Mozilla that lists all studies that they run, or anything remotely like this.
Firefox continually pushes sponsored and clickbait content into their products
Firefox comes with many features for sponsored content and advertisements, such as Sponsored Top Sites. The Mozilla page about this feature says they send ‘anonymized technical data’, which is hyperlinked to a near-empty Github repositry. Firefox partners with adMarketplace for this, which states “We may also receive technical information such as your approximate location, browser type, language settings, user agent, timestamp, cookie ID and IP addresses”, which is very dissimilar to what Mozilla says about this tracking, but perhaps they have a special agreement with Mozilla to opt their users out of this or something.
There is also Pocket, which comes with all distributions of Firefox and shows sponsored stories and other content ‘curated by our editors’ by default. I’m not even going to pretend this is decent. This is is a terible feature, and the last thing I want to see when I open my web browser is a bunch of advertisements for clickbait. I find it sad that mozilla says Pocket “Trades clickbait for quality content”, when the majority of content Pocket offers is complete trash designed to make you click and waste your time, including a lot of content that suggests that surveillance and censorship of the Internet is required to keep me informed and safe.
Fortunately several of the worst features of Firefox are easy to turn off, and some features that are even worse such as Ion, which literally just sends your browsing history to ‘researchers’, are disabled by default and must be opted into. I’m unsure why these features are included in Firefox to begin with, as I can’t imagine the small revenue stream they introduce is significant nor in Mozilla’s best interest.
Firefox is generally a slower browser than Chrome
Using Chrome for a few minutes instantly allows me to understand why it has dominated Firefox in market share over the last decade. While it’s true that Google has many inherent advantages in promoting software, I think its performance, speed, and UX alone goes a long way in demonstrating why Firefox has fallen behind so far.
Mozilla has strange and contradictory ideological goals
When visiting the homepage mozilla.org, the first article that is shown to me is titled ‘We need more than deplatforming’ written by the CEO Mozilla, which implores us to do things like “Turn on by default the tools to amplify factual voices over disinformation”, kindly linking us to a NYT article that discusses how ‘authoritative sources’ such as the NYT and CNN should be prioritized over independent voices.
I don’t want to write much about politics for reasons that should be obvious, but attempting to solve the world’s problems via fact-checking is terrible naive and has no chance of working out well, and I’m amazed at how many large organizations seem to act like the solution to our society’s problems is for us to just ask a fact-checker what is true and what is false, and then hold hands and sing songs as our new utopia is formed.
Continuing to read blogposts from Mozilla (this is from their foundation’s website, I should add that they have some good technical blogposts in other locations) is a rather interesting endeavor as it becomes more and more apparent that Mozilla has large segments of their organization that don’t seem to have any clear goals, and just kind of write about random social and political things on the Internet and their opinions on it, sometimes throwing six-figure grants to random groups of students to make a game that no one ever plays to show us about how something is obviously bad, which I assume they thought was a better use of their money than hiring someone to work on Firefox (which 250 people were laid off from last year).
While Mozilla attempts to provide commentary on many important social issues, there appear to be many suggestions that go directly against their manifesto, which suggests that open expression and individuals freedoms should be prioritized. I respect the right for Mozilla to spend its funding on any social or political content it chooses, and I also think that many of the issues they dedicate time to are very important for our society and for the Internet, but I would rather their organization focuses on making a good web browser, because I would be much more excited about donating to them if my money went towards that.
I’m still glad Firefox exists
I’ve written some negative views about Firefox, but I’m still glad it exists. Making a perfect web browser is difficult, and trying to respect user privacy is difficult. I think Mozilla would be much better off if they were a product-focused company, and spent more money on technical innovation and additional engineers and innovators. For this reason I don’t think donating to Mozilla is a good choice, and as far as similar organizations go, prefer the EFF instead.
This article started to turn into a bit of a rant as I’ve continually found myself disappointed with decisions Mozilla has made, and I’m not surprised that their browser market share has decreased by almost 90% over time as a result. It’s easy to criticize, but difficult to build, so I do want to include this disclaimer to restate that I’m glad Firefox and Mozilla exist, and I wish the best for them and their browser, but I think their modern directions are distracting them from making products good enough to be widely used. I hope things improve, because it would be nice if more than one or two web browsers existed. In fact, I think that’s very important.