Newly born Firefox 71 emerges from its den – with its own VPN and some privacy tricks

Mozilla continues exploring privacy as a source of revenue

Patting itself on the back for blocking more than one trillion web tracking requests through its Enhanced Tracking Protection tech, Mozilla on Tuesday continued its privacy push with a further test of its Firefox Private Network service, an update to Firefox Preview Beta for Android, and the debut of its latest desktop browser, Firefox 71.

Back in September, Mozilla began testing its Firefox Private Network (FPN), a virtual private network (VPN) service for browser traffic, enabled through a Firefox extension (add-on), and soon for protecting all applications on devices at the operating system level.

That FPN beta test has now reached its next stage. Mozilla is inviting US users of the Firefox desktop browser with Firefox Accounts to try FPN out, for free, for up to 12 hours per month.

"With the holidays around the corner, the FPN couldn’t come at a more convenient time," said Marissa Wood, VP of product at Mozilla, in a blog post. "We know people are traveling and might have to rely on an unsecured public Wi-Fi network, like the one at the airport, at your local coffee shop, or even at your doctor’s office."

FPN creates a secure tunnel from the user's browser or device to the internet, protecting any data passing through a Wi-Fi hotspot – if you must log into a public WiFi hotspot, you should use a VPN. Instead of providing the user's IP address, it presents its own IP address, which makes tracking more difficult.

In response to Mozilla's post about FPN, Tavis Ormandy, a noted security researcher at Google, expressed skepticism on Twitter about the value of VPNs outside of hostile network scenarios. He pointed to a widely cited GitHub post that argues the legitimate uses for VPNs are very limited.

The FPN browser extension is powered by Cloudflare; the FPN full-device VPN uses WireGuard, a relatively new VPN technology, on servers operated by Mullvad, a service provider based in Sweden that says it doesn't log user activity.

Wood said Mozilla is opening up a waitlist where would-be users of FPN's full-device service can sign up. Those who are eligible – US-based Firefox Account holders with Windows 10 devices – are promised an eventual signup link for FPN access at the introductory price of $4.99 per month, which is about what it costs to run one's own Outline VPN server through a service provider like Digital Ocean. The caveat is that pricing may change; availability for other platforms like Android, ChromeOS, iOS, macOS, and Linux is planned, eventually.

Mozilla plans to continue testing FPN for several months more, at least.

The Mozilla Foundation received 91 per cent of its royalty revenue (~$430m) from search engines contracts in 2018, down from 93 per cent in 2017. It also generated about $5m in subscription and ad revenue last year. The public benefit corporation aims to offer more paid subscription services like FPN in the hope of diversifying its revenue stream.

A revamped version of Firefox for Android that's based on Mozilla's own GeckoView rendering engine, referred to as Firefox Preview Beta, has made progress along the way toward its planned 2020 release. It now includes tracking and social media widget protection, a more limited form of privacy protection borrowed from desktop Firefox that goes by the name Firefox Site Protections.


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The mobile browser has also gained support for adding and customizing a Search Widget. And it supports sending one or more browser tabs to another device associated with the user's Firefox Account.

Meanwhile, Firefox 71 showed up on Tuesday, bringing with it subdomain and autofill support for Lockwise, the browser's integrated password manager. Also, Firefox Monitor breach alerts are now accessible to users with screen readers.

Firefox's Enhanced Tracking Protection has been modified to note of when it blocks cryptominer code, and it will display a blocked tracker count in the protection panel, which can be viewed by clicking the shield icon in the address bar.

The update brings picture-in-picture support to Firefox for Windows and native MP3 decoding for Linux, macOS, and Windows. It also includes various security fixes, kiosk mode for enterprise users, and various developer-oriented changes, like the default availability of the web sockets inspector. ®

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