Who wants Firefox Suggest? You do, suggests Mozilla

Firefox 93.0 introduces Firefox Suggest, which Mozilla describes in the release notes as “a faster way to navigate the web”. Sounds like marketing horseshit intriguing, but what does that mean?

In practice, Firefox Suggest means that when you type into the address bar – sorry Firefox team, I just can’t bring myself to call it the Awesome Bar – you will now see advertising from Mozilla’s “trusted partners” alongside your search results.

To do this, of course, your search terms – and other information – are now shared with Mozilla’s advertising partners.

Foxy shady

Look, I trust Mozilla on this stuff more than I trust most organizations with a significant internet presence and history, and I still do even after learning about Firefox Suggest. However, sneaky data collection in other browsers is a large part of why I have historically preferred Firefox. The introduction of Firefox Suggest chips away at that trust, even if Firefox Suggest is still way less intrusive than broadly-similar stuff by Google and Amazon.

Interestingly, Mozilla didn’t think it was worth putting out a press release for Firefox Suggest, which does rather suggest that they don’t think it’s a top-tier amazing bit of innovation.

For now at least, “users outside of the US will have local results only (browsing history, bookmarks, and open tab suggestions)”. I was unable to determine if/when Firefox Suggest will start providing non-local (i.e. commercial) results to users outside of the US.

Opt-in to opting in

Although there’s no press release, there is a product announcement, which gives some innocuous examples of how the technology might help users who want to buy sneakers but are somehow still unaware of eBay:

Firefox Suggest also contains sponsored suggestions from vetted partners. For instance, if someone types in β€œvans”, we might show a sponsored result for Vans shoes on eBay

Mozilla Firefox Suggest product announcement

What the product announcement also does, perhaps unwittingly, is to muddy the waters when it comes to participation.

Firefox Suggest is enabled by default in Firefox 93.0, but the product announcement doesn’t explicitly state this. What it says instead is that Firefox will “begin offering smarter contextual suggestions to a percentage of people in the U.S. as an opt-in experience.”

The opt-in experience isn’t Firefox Suggest as a whole, but only the “new type of even smarter suggestion”. I had to read this several times to understand it.

In fairness, the Mozilla Support page does a better job of explaining what’s on by default.

Trusted partners, eh? Trusted by whom?

So, Firefox Suggest is on by default and you must opt out if you don’t want it. Mozilla does provide instructions on how to disable Firefox Suggest, but it’s still a bit of a letdown to see Mozilla quietly opt us all in while telling us it’s somehow “a faster way to navigate the web”.

shallimus | Dread Pirate Robots This wheelbarrow wants to tell you about a faster way to navigate the web

I have to wonder who they’re aiming that phrasing at, because it a) isn’t true and b) sounds like something from an investor brochure. It certainly doesn’t help me feel good about Firefox Suggest.

For commercial search results, Mozilla has partnered with adMarketplace, which describes itself as “the largest privacy safe consumer search marketplace”.

There is an adMarketplace blog, which is full of day-in-the-life-of-an-employee posts, but has no mention whatsoever of Mozilla or Firefox, let alone Firefox Suggest. You’d think partnering with Firefox would merit a blog post by adMarketplace, unless it’s somehow less noteworthy than Hassan’s love of Doritos.

News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising

I know we’re all tracked everywhere we go online, and it’s getting worse all the time. Most companies who claim not to sell your data are being disingenuous at best, and our attention and data are just commodities now.

Still, we should pay attention when an organization we have historically trusted starts talking in sales-speak and introduces opt-out advertising while telling us it’s for our own good.

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