Updated: January 5, 2018
Countries that feature the adjective Democratic in their official title rarely exhibit the traits you expect from a nation state run in a democratic fashion. Similarly, companies that keep frequently reminding you that they are committed to freedom and privacy probably are not quite as liberal and open-minded as they seem.
Case in point, Firefox and the Mr. Robot shield study fiasco. Several weeks ago, Mozilla pushed a promotional advert for a TV series in the guise of one of its studies to millions of Firefox users, doing all this nice and remote like and without user consent. Now that the dust has settled but the smell of a fresh turd remains, let us debate.
My browser assaulted me
Before we focus on Mozilla's peace-loving message, let's talk about the technical side of things, and the implications thereof. First, Mozilla used a built-in feature in the browser, supposedly reserved for browser usage studies, to deliver what can essentially be called crapware - no different than Windows 10 GWX nonsense in this regard.
Indeed, the content they pushed out there is like any TV advert. It does not matter what show or idea they tried to promote in "a fun and unique way" - it is still nothing more than an ad to a paid product that has NOTHING to do with Firefox.
Second, this content was delivered as an extension, remotely. The users were not notified in any way or form, let alone asked to consent to this installation. This is rather ironic given how much preaching Mozilla has given everyone around digitally signed extensions, the new WebExtensions mechanism that supposedly restricts what add-ons can do with the browser, and so on. A wagonload of pontification.
Third, the actual description of this Mr. Robot extension nonsense was also quite vague. Even savvy users were suspicious, as they rightly should be, because this thing had nothing to do with normal usage patterns. I actually missed the drama while it was unfolding, but I did see the aftermath on the about:studies page.
Fourth, they also abused the individual privacy settings in people's browsers. I have a profile that dates back to pre-1.0 releases, and I always carefully check and screen every single program setup and installation. There was NEVER a point in my Firefox history where I allowed any telemetry or studies or anything. Apparently, Mozilla decided that adding new features (e.g. studies) also implies consent on my part, making the feature opt-out, which you cannot morally do on existing installations. And yet, they did.
Fifth, once this exploded, they mopped up in a typical salesy "oops I did it again" fashion, with a lame apology that is somehow supposed to make me feel better that I've been molested by my browser.
Democratic Republic of Mozilla
So what this all mean? Well, what did you expect. You have a company that's out there to make money, and they will do it, any which way they can. And the less market share they have with their copy-Chrome efforts, the more desperate they will get. The whole bullshit message about freedom and all that is not worth the water you need to flush this down the toilet.
Directory Tiles, Pocket (File > Save for idiots), this is just another in a long string of efforts that are designed to make Mozilla more money, and not somehow make your browsing better. In fact, pretty much every new feature they introduced since Firefox 4.0 was one big and unnecessary marketing spin. Even more so since Australis.
More importantly, this also means that you cannot trust Mozilla, at all. You might say the same about Microsoft or Google or Apple or whatever, right, as they are happily doing lots of these things too, expect they never put themselves on a horse quite that high (they still have their self-angelic moments), so you can't really fault them as much.
But in the end, for those still clouded by benevolent illusions, this all started with Firefox 4.0 and the tabs-on-top diarrhea, and it will continue forever more. REMEMBER, THIS IS THE COMPANY THAT WANTS TO "PROTECT" YOU FROM FAKE NEWS!
The only question is, what do you do, the abuse victim of corporate greed, color yourself surprised, in this situation?
What to do, what to do?
And now, the REAL problem. In the past two decades, I have boycotted companies for their behavior. Here, though, the situation is more complicated. If you boycott Firefox, then you need to use a different browser. The tricky thing is, you are probably using Firefox because you do not like other browsers for some reason. So changing a browser actually means reducing your own flexibility and usability.
This would not be a problem if we're talking a pair of trousers or a car, but it is a problem because browsers are not a commodity - they haven't been for a long time now; they are an essential, critical, inseparable part of the Internet experience. It's like the Microsoft Office versus LibreOffice argument. Love it or hate it, for professional work, you have no choice. Likewise, if you do not want to use Chrome or Edge, then Firefox is your only real alternative.
This is a matter of lesser evil and not genuine choice.
And this is the real reason why you should resent Mozilla. From a beloved browser that really gave everyone a genuine alternative to the antics of Internet Explorer to a hypocrite browser that is only marginally less annoying than its rivals.
But what you should really really hate is the current situation - the conditions that brought us here, where we have these limited options. It's like the philosophical question of driving the train down one track and mauling 66 people or driving down another and mauling 59 people. Either way, it's not fun.
What about Firefox spins?
That's a good question. Cyberfox, Waterfox, Pale Moon, etc. What about those? I like these efforts. I really do. But ultimately, they are still limited to what Mozilla does as a company. What if Mozilla decides to bundle some crazy new functionality into the core of the browser engine? How are these spins going to handle that? In the end, as long as they do not fully control the entire code base, they will be affected some way.
Moreover, these entities have relatively small budgets and resources, and they cannot compete with Mozilla in a meaningful way. Like Linux distributions mostly driven by volunteer efforts, Firefox spins share the same (whimsical) nature and spirit, and they can theoretically disappear overnight. If you need, no require, long-term stability, you can't bet on this.
So what do you do then?
The answer is - be vocal about your dissatisfaction. I've written about this before. Companies care about profit. Not you. What they really fear is bad publicity that can potentially scare away investors. So you need to focus there, where you can influence the revenue stream. If Mozilla's actions are construed as profit-losing, they will quickly amend them to avoid backlash. This is true for any money-making business out there.
For example, in this case, I know I will not watch this TV show. I have no idea what it is, never seen or heard about it, but now, I am certain, BECAUSE MOZILLA, that I will not watch it. How's that for your study?
Oh, and lastly, Mozilla, here's something fun and unique:
A few weeks ago, Mozilla finally showed us its true skin. No more illusions about its feel-goodie world-loving efforts. Yet another shark in the pond, after its share of filthy dimes. One day, there will be a new browser, and it will be something nice and cool and unspoiled by greed just yet. That will be the moment when I say goodbye to Firefox. For now, it's still the least annoying turd in the pile, and I'm exercising my rather futile civil duty to complain.
In a world without real choice, the best you can do, short of a proper bloody revolution, is to bitch and moan and tell your story. Luckily, this seems to work well. If there's one good use to social media, it's blowing things out of proportion and making viral, tidal waves of feces. Harness that power. Fight back. Remember, there IS such a thing as bad publicity. When it hits their pocket, you know you're on the right track. So once again, thank you Mozilla for molesting my browser. Stay fake.