Firefox, Pocket and Sponsored Stories

Updated: February 14, 2018

Well, well, remember when I told you - the more desperate Mozilla gets vis-a-vis its market share, the more aggressive they will get with pushing "quality" content onto its users? I did, I did. Well, the bonfires of the Mr. Robot fiasco have hardly cooled, and now there's a new drama developing. Mozilla will start rolling a pilot that tests sponsored stories in the Pocket recommendations section on the New Tab page.

Since I'm usually a blithely cheerful chap, I'm actively looking for stories to sour my mood, and so I was excited (this is sales lingo, we will get to that) to read this announcement. After all, writing about how everything is peachy and efficient and good in the tech world is boring, we need these little burdocks of greed to make things complicated. After me, pioneers.


Once upon a time there was a browser I liked, now it's only falling apart, nothing I can do, sponsored content is going to start.

In more detail

Once upon a time, Mozilla introduced this thing Pocket into Firefox. What it does, beats me. Probably allows less savvy people to "save" stories for later - apparently because they are incapable of using things like an actual save as function, their browsing history or, wait for it, bookmarks. Now, with Firefox 57 firing quantums all over the place and people being comfy with this Pocket thing, Mozilla is looking to introduce sponsored stories. It does not take a genius to figure out what sponsored stories mean. Specifically:

When Mozilla and Pocket joined forces less than a year ago, we said that together we will work to provide people everywhere with the tools to discover and access high-quality web content across platforms and silos, for a safer, empowered, independent online experience.

If the statement above makes you angry or confused, do not be. It is not directed at YOU, the user. It is directed at investors. When they read words like silos and platforms (and the word excited follows a paragraph later), they see monetary opportunities. Don't forget to be empowered, because living in the first world, you need empowerment, because there isn't enough of it.

So what gives? Well, you are going to get MOAR ads in your browser.

Don't be so harsh

Mozilla needs money, you might say. If they don't make profit, then they will disappear, and you will be left with Chrome. Sounds ominous, I admit, and perhaps a few years back, the thought might have made me somewhat sad and uncomfortable. But now, with Firefox and WebExtensions and Directory Tiles and Pocket and Mr. Robot and all these other lovely additions (the 1950s sales era brute force margin approach to consumerism), the gap left by Firefox disappearing might not be so deep after all.


Unleash your Internet, what? The recipient must have consented? To what? It's like reading news from another planet. But then, this is not a message for you or me or anyone with an IQ that hazards to approach the dangerous three-digit mark. From below that is.

The added value of Firefox

Looking back across the last six or so years, my feeling toward Firefox has gone from jolly lovely to utter disdain. There are only two reasons why I still use this browser:

Once upon a time, the differences - and advantages - of Firefox were huge. You had extensions like Tab Mix Plus, Videodownload Helper (the good version), Sage, Zotero, Scrapbook, and many, many others. It was a Swiss army knife tool, and you could do anything and everything with Firefox, and very little with all rival browsers.

Today, technically, the difference has come down to ONE extension, for me. If there was Noscript for Chrome, I might even be inclined to use Chrome on a permanent basis. And no it's not the security aspect of it, which is always overblown, it's the peace and quiet aspect - I absolutely hate the flashy crap that people call the Internet today.

The salami tactics

Of course, changes are rarely a radical, revolutionary step-function. Mozilla introduced tiles and Pocket and let you get comfortable with the idea as well as their visual presence. They showed you their own stories at first, which had a decidedly privacy-oriented spin (Snowden, EFF, stuff like that), and now that you have a Pavlovian response of safety and trust gazing at the tiles, an odd sponsored tile or two won't trigger the reptilian part of your brain.

Salami tactics

On the left, your will to resist; on the right, parts already taken.

Image taken from Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

The worst part is - Mozilla keeps talking about privacy and freedom like Thulsa Doom standing in front of his crowd of minions, except James Earl Jones is way cooler than Mozilla's blog posts, and we have no Conan to kick ass. In fact, if you look across different browsers, you don't really get much of this same sponsored stories nonsense. Moreover, none of the rivals pretends to be a non-profit unicorn. At least you know where you stand when you sign up with them. They are after your money and your data, and they don't claim otherwise.

The only seemingly redeeming part is that you can technically opt-out and disable some of the stuff in Firefox, for the time being. But listen carefully now, Prophet Dedoimedo tells you ... it will get worse.

A lot worse

Actually, it does not take a wizard to figure things out. Just look what happened in the past five years, ever since the mobile world exploded. For instance, thinking wildly about some rather common examples, Windows 7 to Windows 10, and the amount of pesky, online and telemetry stuff. Just compare Skype 7.40, the last classic version. and the toy factory moronity that is Skype 8. Windows Control Panel to Windows Settings. Gnome 2 to Gnome 3. Oh, Firefox 3.6 to Firefox whatever.

What you see is that menus get deeper and deeper and deeper and more obfuscated, with focus on aesthetic minimalism (mobile) that goes directly against user intuition and efficiency. You need more and more actions and mouse clicks to achieve the same results you could half a decade before. Now imagine what will happen in five or even ten years. Consider yourself lucky you were there to witness the early days of the Internet, when it was still all naive and innocent and not just pure money.


They can take away our tabs, but they can't take away our ... freedom. Wait.

Image courtesy of openpixel,

On the privacy side, again, the changes are astounding. Back in 2005, a program (say a toolbar) that profiled your browsing experience and served you ads was called SPYWARE. Today, this is an integral, built-in part of many programs. Almost any mobile application you install will read your contacts, emails, browsing history, and more. The only difference is that people willingly, deliberately and ignorantly allow these actions, so the legal spin is all covered. But the technical differences between BonziBuddy and most of the modern (touch) software and browser features aren't that big.

Now think, telemetry in Windows, ads in streaming appliances (say Amazon TV), online accounts on mobile operating systems, especially Android. Locked firmware. Embedded promotions in applications. DRM media. None of this is there to make the user experience any better. All of it serves a completely different purpose.

Now Firefox ...

Five years ago, the new tab page was a blank sheet. There's a reason why it's called about:blank. Now, you need to manually remove no less than four elements, and soon five (sponsored stories). Pocket is an integral part of the browser code, and you need to go into about:config to disable it (still possible for now). There are dozens of configuration related to the new tab page activity, which seem somewhat alarming from the privacy perspective.

New tab options

New tab configurations

What if Mozilla decides your new tab page should be more like Chrome or Opera - it's not like they haven't made changes that makes Firefox copypaste Chrome before right. What if they decide that Pocket cannot be disabled? What if they decide to make telemetry mandatory? It has not happened yet, but if someone asked you in 2007, what's Firefox in 2017 going to look like, or for that matter, pretty much any product, well. I mean, what do you think the next thing is? Flowers and hugs and we go back to Firefox 3.6 and old extensions? No, Kimosabe, the way forward is money.

If you ever get confused, think: AIR TRAVEL. Once upon a time, it was fun - if expensive. Now, you have nine tiers of economy crap, you pay for everything (pre-boarding, onboarding, waterboarding), less leg room, narrower seats, less fresh air cycling than in the olden days, you pay for snacks on short hauls, and there are still more and more limitations and restrictions designed to squeeze an even bigger margin for the companies. The same is happening with the Internet.

There might even come a day when it becomes illegal to tweak software, jailbreak your appliances, or disable certain functions. We're not there yet, but in 30 years, the current generation of LIKE junkies and their future offspring will definitely be ready to sign up for whatever new Web 5.0 nonsense comes out then.

Don't hate the players

Hate the game. You shouldn't hate Mozilla, after all. It's an American company, and it's doing what American companies do - profit, margins and all that, hell it's a cushty game if you're willing to play on the smart side, i.e. as an investor not a user. The model has been around for some time, and if you wonder why any tech company looks, feels and behaves like it's sales, it's because it's sales. The reason why YOU hate it is because you're not someone who gets excited by fancy slides, words like silos (are we on a farm?), inventory and enablement, because they don't mean anything to you. They are investors' lingo. The secret language of shareholders and people with monetary clout.

Focus your anger on the lack of viable alternative. Why isn't there a successful browser that employs a different, less money-oriented approach to success? Why is that if you need a certain functionality, you're limited in your choices? Can you point out any non-American browsers that can give you what Firefox does? Nope, because in the long run, the only truly successful business model is this whole excited-silo story. So in the end, whatever Mozilla does wouldn't be a biggie, if not for the fact that all its rivals are doing the same, and if you want something else, you'll be blazing a hippie trail full of zombie.


Some people may assume that I have a personal problem with Mozilla and Firefox. Not really. It's just I don't like hypocrisy, and I do not like being herded toward the pen that reads IDIOTS. I fully understand that Mozilla needs quiche. Fine, state it upfront. Don't veil it in bullshit. The words privacy, freedom and similar slogans mean nothing when you put them side by side with sponsored stories. You want money, start charging money for your browser. There's nothing wrong with that. And I would gladly pay for a high-quality product - and when needed, I do.

I also wish that we had alternatives - the more the merrier. Alas, the exact opposite is happening. As time goes by, it will become even more difficult to have (supposedly free) products that really cater to their users. The profit slope is a one-way direction. Once you make a margin, you need to make more margin and more margin and more margin. It never stops.

Firefox is a completely different product than it was a decade ago. It's now a big boy, trying to compete in the big arena. There's no room for niceties anymore. The only thing you can do is try to prepare for the inevitable day when this salesy nonsense becomes too much, so when you do switch, you try to do it elegantly and smartly. I cannot guarantee there's actually going to be a nice and peaceful browser for you out there when that moment comes, so if you want to sleep all relaxed, don't. The old Internet is dying, and the future does not belong to you and me or anyone willing to read this entire article without skipping words. The best you can do is play the game, so at the very least, you will be a rich idealist one day rather than a poor user. Or better yet, a rich loser rather than a poor user. Your next T-shirt. Take care.