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Mozilla clarifies, defends Firefox ad position

Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation, defends Firefox's new ad program. Firefox users remain wary.

The surprising news that Mozilla would start placing a limited number of ads on Firefox's new tabs page, Directory Tiles, still has some users annoyed.

Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation explained and defended the Foundation's new ad program, but many supporters remain unconvinced.

Mitchell Baker, Mozilla chair
Mitchell Baker, the chair of the Mozilla Foundation, explained and defended the new ads in the Firefox Web browser.

According to Baker, previous attempts to add advertisement content to Firefox had been rejected by the Firefox user community. Baker described these as "features, bookmarks, tabs, and other irritants added to the product to generate revenue. We’d seen Mozilla code subsequently 'enhanced' with these features, and so we have a very strong, very negative reaction to any activities that even remotely remind us of this approach to product That’s good."

Firefox users would agree. So, what's changed?

Baker explained: "This reaction somehow became synonymous with other approaches that are not necessarily so helpful. For a number of years we refused to have any relationship with our users beyond we provide software and they use it. We resisted offering content unless it came directly from an explicit user action. This made sense at first when the web was so young. But over the years many people have come to expect and want their software to do things on their behalf, to take note of what one has done before and do something useful with it."

"We think we can offer people useful content in the Tiles," she added. "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."

At the same time, these won't be like normal ads. These sponsored results/ ads would not have tracking features." The emphasis is Baker's. Since maintaining user privacy has long been one of Mozilla's defining features, this should help reassure loyal Firefox users.

Baker concluded, "Pretty much anytime we talk about revenue at Mozilla people get suspicious. Mozillians get suspicious, and our supporters get suspicious. There’s some value in that, as it reinforces our commitment to user experience and providing value to our users. There’s some drawbacks to this as well, however. I’ll be talking with Mozillians … in the coming days on these topics in more detail."

On the blog, users expressed concern over the lack of detail about how this would work. Others worried that Mozilla was "entering onto a slippery slope where eventually 'monetization' will be the primary goal in deciding elements of the browser’s design rather than user experience. Already there are rumors floating around about such extreme future actions as getting rid of the ability to have 3rd-party add-ons due to their potential to disrupt Mozilla’s revenue stream somehow."

Still others disliked the way that the ads were first presented in a "shockingly amateurish" fashion. In the blog's comments, Baker agreed that it could have been handled better. She said, "Details are important and we would have done much better if we had gotten our steps ordered differently and discussed and vetted the details first."

She also explained that one reason why Mozilla is looking for more revenue is the cost of creating Firefox OS. "Building an entire mobile ecosystem is extremely expensive," said Baker. "Offering services is expensive. If we don’t do these things then we will not be able to offer people the tools for modern life."

Baker also hinted that Mozilla might also look at other ways to bring in revenue. "Other models could work too. Note that if we offer fremium services we might want to tell people about them, and maybe that would seem like advertising too …… lots of details involved in making any approach work."

Today Mozilla gets almost all of its funding from Google. Indeed, in 2012, 90 percent of its revenue came from its Google search deal with far less than 1 percent coming from donations. Clearly Mozilla needs to diversify its revenue streams lest it become little more than a branch of Google.

Still Baker realizes that Firefox's culture is very hostile to advertising. Baker added that "We recognize the slippery slope issue. We came out of that setting, where the product we built at Netscape was deeply damaged for this," and they've no desire to repeat those mistakes.

Mozilla will have to walk a very narrow line between creating its own native sources of revenue and alienating its user base. Baker is working hard to get Mozilla on the right path after its initial mis-steps. It will be interesting to see how well Mozilla can pull off this balancing act in the coming months.

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