Mozilla's latest Firefox test: Can this new tool really tell where you should go next?

Mozilla is testing out a new recommender system but it will share your web browsing history with a third party.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Video: Mozilla tests Have I Been Pwned in Firefox.

Following the Firefox Quantum reboot to compete with Google Chrome, non-profit Mozilla has launched an experimental version of its browser with a new web-discovery and recommender feature called Advance.

Advance is part of Mozilla's plan to win back users and capitalize on the privacy concerns some people have about internet giants that have too much control over the web.

As a Mozilla product manager announcing Advance notes, Silicon Valley companies design products to "build addiction" to boost ad clicks.

So, while algorithm-based personalization of the web can be helpful, it comes at the expense of some company gaining a detailed picture of your interests to shape your social-media feed.

Its answer is Advance, available through the Firefox Test Pilot platform, a part of Firefox that Mozilla uses to test concepts it intends to ship in general release.

SEE: How to optimize the smart office (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

You'll need to download Firefox Test Pilot and, via the Test Pilot icon, enable the web extension. Advance will then appear as a permanent sidebar on the browser that is updated with new content suggestions based on sites you're looking at now.

"With Advance we're taking you back to our Firefox roots and the experience that started everyone surfing the web. That time when the World Wide Web was uncharted territory and we could freely discover new topics and ideas online. The internet was a different place," says Mozilla.

Advance's suggestions change with each page opened. So if Google Search is used to look up a recipe for Vietnamese Pho noodles, it'll provide a list of suggestions from foodie sites. Visit ZDNet.com, and it builds a list of tech news from other blogs and news sites.

Users can also tell its Laserlike search engine that the suggestions aren't of interest, spam or off-topic, or simply block a recommended item.

The concept is simple enough. "Advance delivers real-time recommendations to your Firefox sidebar while you browse. Advance uses your current browsing to suggest related news and similar pages to read next, and uses your browsing history to create a personalized feed of quality content," the product description reads.

The tool was built by Silicon Valley firm, Laserlike, which calls itself an interest search engine. For Mozilla, it builds on its idea of a browser "forward button", which led its developers to create the Context Graph feature called Activity Stream, the first Test Pilot extension that launched in 2016 and is now built into its Firefox Quantum browser.

However, installing and using Advance appears to do exactly what people get antsy about when using extensions, in that it shares web browsing history data with a third party, in this case Laserlike. The popular Stylish extension for Chrome and Firefox was recently removed over a similar issue.

But Mozilla notes that it believes browser history is sensitive information so it's being upfront that Laserlike will receive that information, as well as offering a few controls, including the ability to request Laserlike to delete user web history information.

"We have also included controls so that participants can pause the experiment, see what browser history Laserlike has about them, or request deletion of that information.

"We're interested in seeing how our users respond to their browsers having a more active role in helping them explore the web, and we'll experiment with different methods of providing these recommendations if we see enough interest."


Advance's recommendations appear in a list on the left side of the screen.

Image: Mozilla

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