Want to support Firefox? Great, you'll have no problem with personalised, sponsored search suggestions then

Dark pattern consent dialog invites users to share their location with advertisers


Mozilla is trialling personalised advertising in its Firefox Suggest feature, along with sponsored search results, with users told that it "helps fund Firefox development."

Firefox Suggest was first introduced last month in Firefox 92, billed as "a new discovery feature that is built directly into the browser."

The feature provides links as the user types in the search bar, which can be based on local browsing history, bookmarks and open tabs, or on "sponsored suggestions from vetted partners." Currently, users outside the US only see these uncontentious local prompts.

Firefox Suggest data flow, showing how data now flows to Mozilla and its partners as well as the search engine

Firefox Suggest data flow, showing how data now flows to Mozilla and its partners as well as the search engine

Firefox 93, released earlier this week, adds a new dimension to the Suggest feature, called contextual suggestions. In this case, when the user clicks a link additional data is sent to the advertiser, primarily location data according to the explanation.

The company said that the location is derived from the IP address of the client, and converted to a "more general location" by Mozilla before it is sent to the advertising partner. "The data we share with partners does not include personally identifying information and is only shared when you see or click on a suggestion," Mozilla said.

Note the careful wording "when you see or click." Seeing something is different from clicking on it, but it is hard to understand how the feature can work unless it operates before the user sees it. If the user clicks a link, the target of the link will see the user's IP number for themselves. Mozilla also collects a notification for itself that the suggested link was clicked.

Again, only "a limited number of users in the US only" will get this feature initially. Users will be prompted with a dialog inviting them to "allow suggestions" before the feature is enabled. The dialog is an example of a dark pattern, with three options, one highlighted to encourage a reflex click, one in discouraging grey for customising settings, and sneaked in at top right, a small "Not now" link.

Users see this consent dialog - spot the Not now tucked out of sight

Users see this consent dialog – spot the 'Not now' tucked out of sight

Although the contextual suggestion feature requires this opt-in, the sponsored suggestions are on by default – the difference being the data that is sent to partners providing the suggestions. Firefox says that its "preferred partner" for sponsored results is a company called adMarketplace which claims to be a "privacy-safe consumer marketplace."

Firefox and the work of Mozilla is important to the web community since it is an independent browser with its own engine, unlike most others which use the Google-sponsored Chromium engine. These sponsored links sit uncomfortably with Mozilla's claim to be privacy advocates – yet like many other open-source companies, Mozilla is in the position where it cannot charge directly for its products so looks for other means of monetising them. Much of its income comes from Google, which pays to be the default search engine in Firefox.

Other new features in Firefox 93 include the blocking of downloads over unencrypted connections, though users will see an option to allow the download (again in a discouraging grey).

There are also new privacy features including SmartBlock 3.0, which Mozilla said has "vastly improved support" for faking Google Analytics scripts to get round the problem of sites blocking content for users they are unable to track. There is also better protection against HTTP referrer headers that send too much information, and blocking of downloads in frames marked as sandboxed.

Firefox on Windows gets a new automatic tab unloading feature when memory is "critically low." Unloaded tabs will be reloaded when the user switches to them. The idea is to reduce Firefox out-of-memory crashes.

The full list of what's new in Firefox 93 is here. ®

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