Earth to Mozilla: Come back home
Doc Searls Weblog 2014-04-13
In her blog post explaining the Brendan Eich resignation, Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation, writes, “We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.” In Mozilla is Human, Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Foundation, adds, “What we also need to do is start a process of rebirth and renewal. We need to find our soul and our spirit.”
Neither Mosaic nor Navigator were instruments of the advertising business. They were boards we rode to surf from site to site across oceans of data, and cars we drove down the information superhighway.
But now all major browsers, Firefox included, have become shopping carts that get re-skinned at every commercial site they visit, and infected at many of those sites by cookies and other tracking files that report our activities back to advertising mills, all the better to “personalize” our “experience” of advertising and other “content.”
Economically speaking, Firefox is an instrument of advertising, and not just a vehicle for users. Because, at least indirectly, advertising is Firefox’s business model. Chrome’s too. (Apple and Microsoft have much smaller stakes in advertising, and offer browsers mostly for other reasons.)
This has caused huge conflicts for Mozilla. On the one hand they come from the users’ side. On the other, they need to stay in business — and the only one around appears to be advertising. And the market there is beyond huge.
But so is abuse of users by the advertising industry. This is made plain by the popularity of Adblock Plus (Firefox and Chrome’s #1 add-on by a huge margin) and other instruments of prophylaxis against both advertising and tracking (e.g. Abine, Disconnect, Ghostery and Privowny, to name a few).
To align with this clear expression of market demand, Mozilla made moves in February 2013 to block third party cookies (which Apple’s Safari, which doesn’t depend on advertising, does by default). The IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) split a gut, and began playing hardball. Some links:
- IAB Accuses Mozilla of Undermining American Small Business & Consumers’ Control of Their Privacy with Proposed Changes to Firefox
- IAB President & CEO Randall Rothenberg’s Statement Opposing Mozilla’s Intention to Block Third-Party Cookies
- Has Mozilla Lost Its Values?
- FAQ on Mozilla’s Intention to Block Third-Party Cookies
That last item — an extensive bill of particulars — featured this sidebar:
The link goes to An Open Letter to the Mozilla Corporation.
So Mozilla looked for common ground, and they found it on the advertising side, with personalization. Near as I can tell, this began in May 2013, with Jay Sullivan‘s Personalization With Respect post. In July, Justin Scott, then a Product Manager at Mozilla Labs, vetted A User Personalization Proposal for Firefox. The post was full of language straight out of the ad industry songbook: “favorite brands,” “personalized experience,” “increased engagement,” “stronger loyalty.” Blowback in the comments was fierce:
I don’t care what publishers want, or that they really like this new scheme to increase their marketing revenue. Don’t add more tracking.
I’m beginning to realize that Mozilla is working to make Firefox as attractive to publishers as possible, while forgetting that those eyeballs looking at their ads could be attached to people who don’t want to be targeted. Stop it. Remember your roots as a “we’ll take Mozilla’s code, and make a great thing with it”, and not as “Google pays us to be on the default toolbar”.
Absolutely terrible idea.
The last thing the internet needs is more “personalization” (read: “invasion of my privacy”). All your marketing jargon does nothing to hide the fact that this is just another tool to allow advertisers, website owners, the NSA, and others to track users online habits and, despite any good intentions you might have, it’s rife with the potential for abuse.
Bad idea. I do not want it. I think you misstate the benefits of the Internet. One of the most salient benefits of the Internet is for web sites, advertisers, and ISPs who are able to build dossiers about individuals’ private lives/data, generally without most users being aware of the possibility and generally without the users’ consent.
One of the main reasons Firefox has succeeded is that it, unlike all the other browsers, was dedicated to users unfettered, secure, and as private as possible use of the Internet.
If this “feature” becomes part of FireFox you’ll loose many users, if we wanted Chrome like browser we wouldn’t have chosen FireFox. We chose FireFox because it was DIFFERENT FROM Chrome but lately all I see is changes that make it similar and now you want to put spyware inside? Thanks but no thanks.
A follow-up post in July, by Harvey Anderson, Senior VP Business and Legal Affairs at Mozilla, was titled Up With People, and laid on even more of the same jive, this time without comments. In December Justin posted User Personalization Update, again with no comments.
Then in February, Darren Herman, Mozilla’s VP Content Services, posted Publisher Transformation With Users at the Center, introducing two new programs. One was User Personalization. (Darren’s link goes Justin’s July piece.) The other was something called “directory tiles” that will appear on Firefox’s start page. He wasn’t explicit about selling ads in the tiles, but the implication was clear, both from blowback in the comments and from coverage in other media.
Romain Dillet in TechCrunch wrote, ”For the last couple of years, Mozilla and the advertising industry have been at odds. The foundation created the do-not-track feature to prevent targeted advertising. When users opt in, the browser won’t accept third party cookies anymore, making it much harder to display targeted ads around the web. Last year, Mozilla even chose to automatically block third-party cookies from websites that you hadn’t visited. Now, Mozilla wants to play ball with advertisers.”
The faithful didn’t like it. In Daring Fireball, John Gruber wrote, ”What a pile of obtuse horseshit. If you want to sell ads, sell ads. Own it. Don’t try to coat it with a layer of frosting and tell me it’s a fucking cupcake.”
When we have ideas about how content might be useful to people, we look at whether there is a revenue possibility, and if that would annoy people or bring something potentially useful. Ads in search turn out to be useful. The gist of the Tiles idea is that we would include something like 9 Tiles on a page, and that 2 or 3 of them would be sponsored — aka “ads.” So to explicitly address the question of whether sponsored tiles (aka “ads”) could be included as part of a content offering, the answer is yes.
These sponsored results/ ads would not have tracking features.
Why would we include any sponsored results? If the Tiles are useful to people then we’ll generate value. That generates revenue that supports the Mozilla project. So to explicitly address the question of whether we care about generating revenue and sustaining Mozilla’s work, the answer is yes. In fact, many of us feel responsible to do exactly this.
Clearly Mozilla equates producing revenue with advertising, and intends to continue down a path that many of its most passionate users don’t like. This position is easy to rationalize, given Mozilla.com‘s business model and need to stay alive.
By becoming an advertising company (in addition to everything else it is), Mozilla now experiences a problem that has plagued ad-supported media for the duration: its customers and consumers are different populations. I saw it in when I worked in commercial broadcasting, and I see it today in the online world with Google, Facebook, Twitter… and Mozilla. The customers (or at least the main ones) are either advertisers or proxies for them (Google in Mozilla’s case). The consumers are you and me.
The difference with Mozilla is that it didn’t start out as an advertising company. So becoming one involves a change of nature — a kind of Breaking Bad.
It hurts knowing that Mozilla is the only browser-maker that comes from our side, and wants to stay here, and treat us right. Apple clearly cares about customers (witness the success of their stores, and customer service that beats all the competition’s), but its browser, Safari, is essentially a checkbox item. Same goes for Microsoft, with Explorer. Both are theirs, not ours. Opera means well, but it’s deep in fifth place, with a low single-digit market share. Google’s Chrome is a good browser, but also built to support Google’s advertising-based business model. But only Mozilla has been with us from the start. And now here they are, trying their best not to talk like they’ve been body-snatched by the IAB.
And it’s worse than just that.
In addition to the Brendan Eich mess, Mozilla is coping with losing three of its six board members (who left before Brendan resigned). Firefox’s market share is also declining: from 20.63% in May 2013 to 17.68% in February 2014, according to NetMarketShare.com. (Other numbers here.)
Is it just a coincidence that May 2013 is also when Jay Sullivan made that first post, essentially announcing Mozilla’s new direction, toward helping the online advertising industry? Possibly. But that’s not what matters.
What matters is that Mozilla needs to come back home: to Earth, where people live, and where the market is a helluva lot bigger than just advertising. I see several exciting paths for getting back. Here goes.
1) Offer a choice of browsers.
Keep Firefox free and evolving around an advertising-driven model.
And introduce a new one, built on the same open source code base, but fully private, meaning that it’s the person’s own, to be configured any way they please — including many new ways not even thinkable for a browser built to work for advertisers. Let’s call this new browser PrivateFox. (Amazingly, PrivateFox.org was an available domain name until I bought it last night. I’ll be glad to donate it to Mozilla.)
Information wants to be free, but value wants to be paid for. Since PrivateFox would have serious value for individuals, it would have a price tag. Paying for PrivateFox would make individuals actual customers rather than just “users,” “consumers,” “targets” and an “audience.” Mozilla could either make the payment voluntary, as with public radio and shareware, or it could make the browser a subscription purchase. That issue matters far less than the vast new market opportunities that open when the customer is truly in charge: something we haven’t experienced in the nineteen years that have passed since the first commercial websites went up.
PrivateFox would have privacy by design from the start: not just in the sense of protecting people from unwelcome surveillance; but in the same way we are private when we walk about the marketplace in the physical world. We would have the digital equivalent of clothing to hide the private parts of our virtual bodies. We would also be anonymous by default — yet equipped with wallets, purses, and other instruments for engagement with the sellers of the world.
With PrivateFox, we will be able to engage all friendly sites and sellers in ways that we choose, and on terms of our choosing as well. (Some of those terms might actually be more friendly than those one-sided non-agreements we submit to all the time without reading. For more on what can be done on the legal front, read this.)
(Yes, I know that Netscape failed at trying to charge for its browser way back in the early days. But times were different. What was a mistake back then could be a smart move today.)
2) Crowdsource direct funding from individuals.
That’s a tall order — several hundred million dollars’ worth — but hey, maybe it can be done. I’d love to see an IndieGoGo (or equivalent) campaign for “PrivateFox: The World’s First Fully Private Browser. Goal: $300 million.”
3) Build intentcasting into Firefox as it stands.
Shopping is broken. In the fifties, if you wanted to buy a toaster, you only had a few practical choices. Maybe you went to the nearest department store and selected from the three models available. Or maybe you found your toaster in the Sears catalog. In a way, you were the hunter, and the toaster was the prey. You knew approximately where it was located, and you tracked it down and bagged it. Toasters couldn’t hide from you.
Now you shop on the Internet, and you can buy from anywhere on the planet. The options for any particular purchase approach infinity, or so it seems. Google is nearly worthless when shopping for items that don’t involve technology. It is as if the Internet has become a dense forest where your desired purchases can easily hide.
Advertising is broken too, because there are too many products battling for too little consumer attention. So ads can’t hope to close the can’t-find-what-I-want gap.
The standard shopping model needs to be reversed. Instead of the shopper acting as hunter, and the product hiding as prey, you should be able to describe in your own words what sort of thing you are looking for, and the vendors should use those footprints to hunt you down and make their pitch.
There are many ways of doing this. More than a dozen appear under “Intentcasting” in this list of VRM developers. Some are under wraps, but have huge potential.
Intentcasting sets a population comprised of 100% qualified leads loose in the marketplace, all qualifying their lead-ness on their own terms. This will be hugely disruptive to the all-guesswork business that cherishes a 1% click-through rate in “impressions” that mostly aren’t — and ignores the huge negative externalities generated by a 99+% failure rate. It will also generate huge revenues, directly.
This would be a positive, wealth-creating move that should make everybody (other than advertising mill-keepers) happy. Even advertisers. Trust me: I know. I co-founded and served as Creative Director for Hodskins Simone & Searls, one of Silicon Valley’s top ad agencies for the better part of two decades. Consider this fact: No company that advertises defines themselves as “an advertiser.” They have other businesses. Advertising might be valuable to them, but it’s still just a line item on the expense side of the balance sheet. They can cut or kill it any time they want.
“Buy on the sound of cannons, sell on the sound of trumpets,” Lord Nathan Rothschild said. For the last few years advertising has been one giant horn section, blasting away. If online advertising isn’t a bubble (which I believe it is), it at least qualifies as a mania. And it is the nature of manias to pass.
Business-wise, investing in an advertising strategy isn’t a bad bet for Mozilla right now. But the downsides are real and painful. Mozilla can reduce that pain by placing other bets: ones on the demand side of the marketplace, and not just — like everybody else — on the supply side.
Here on Earth we have a landing site for Mozilla, where the above and many other ideas can be vetted and hashed out with the core constituency: IIW, the Internet Identity Workshop. It’s an inexpensive three-day unconference that runs twice every year in the heart of Silicon Valley, at the Computer History Museum: an amazing venue.
Phil Windley, Kaliya Hamlin and I have been putting on IIW since 2005. We’ve done seventeen so far, and it’s impossible to calculate how far sessions there have moved forward the topics that come up, all vetted and led by participants.
Here’s one topic I promise to raise on Day One: How can we help Mozilla? Lots of Mozilla folk have been at IIWs in the past. This time participating will have more leverage than ever.
I want to see lots of lizards and lizard-helpers there.