Is The Google/Firefox Relationship A Conflict Of Interest?

from the trust-but-verify dept

CNET's Chris Soghoian raises some concerns about Google's close relationship with the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit that owns the Firefox trademark. He points out that the vast majority of Mozilla's revenue comes from Google, and notes a number of ways that Firefox is configured to use Google as the default for various online services. Soghoian is right that close scrutiny of these sorts of relationships is healthy. However, it's pretty hard to get too worked up about the specific problems he cites. First, he notes that Mozilla has chosen not to include a couple of ad- and cookie-blocking plugins with the default Firefox package. Soghoian thinks that's a sign of something fishy going on, since those products would deprive Google of revenue. But there are thousands of plugins out there, and all sorts of reasons they might have chosen to exclude any given one. Soghoian offers no evidence it was at Google's behest. But more to the point, even if it were Google's doing, I don't understand why that would be a bad thing. Google makes a profit by selling advertising and shares a significant share of those revenues with Mozilla, which Mozilla then spends on making Firefox better. That sounds like a win-win-win proposition to us. Finally, given Google's excellent track record of making ads actually useful, relevant, and non-intrusive, it's not at all clear that users even want Firefox to block its ads. As long as Mozilla doesn't try to stop users from installing ad-blocking plugins themselves, I don't see the problem.

Soghoian also objects to the fact that Google controls Firefox's phishing blacklist. At least one prominent security researcher claims that one of Google's sites has a serious security flaw that they've refused to fix, and they've also refused to add themselves to the Mozilla phishing blacklist. Obviously, unfixed security flaws are a bad thing, but this doesn't seem to have all that much to do with the Google-Firefox relationship per se. Google is not a fly-by-night operation, and it's highly unlikely they're leaving unfixed security flaws on their site as a matter of corporate policy. More likely, any unfixed security problems are the result of honest oversights or bureaucratic incompetence. The solution, then is to put pressure on Google to fix the problem. Even if someone else controlled the blacklist, it's likely they'd be reluctant to take the drastic step of blacklisting a Google-owned site.

Free software projects like Firefox rely on contributions from a wide variety of individuals and organizations. Many of them participate for self-interested reasons, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Of course, it's important to scrutinize such relationships to ensure that they don't subvert the broader goals of the organization. But I see little reason to think that describes either of Soghoian's examples. And it would be a mistake to let a general distrust of for-profit companies undermine opportunities to make free software better.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Andrew, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 6:38am

    Google and Firefox

    I agree, if Google's cooperation with Firefox results in a better product to help ween this world off of the monster that is IE then I am all for it. Until you can show me that Google and Firefox have done something malicious in the name of profits I will continue to support their relationship because I think it is good for browser users and the open source community.

     

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  2.  
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    Joseph Beck, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 6:45am

    Google vs. Microsoft

    Google has complained long and hard about Microsoft's advantage in IE, especially when IE7 was released and MSN was the default search. But it looks like Google has it's tentacles into Firefox at least as much as Microsoft is into IE.

    It would be interesting to go back and look at Google's complaints about Microsoft and see how they compare to Google/Firefox.

     

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  3.  
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    Haywood, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 6:58am

    re: Google vs. Microsoft

    Turn about is fair play. I loaded IE 7 just to see, not going to avoid it just because it is IE, and it really fails compared to Firefox. IE7 is nice looking and all, even functions well, but when you look at plug-ins, they are few and for sale. I'm spoiled by the many and free plug-ins for Firefox, I don't see how M.S. intends to make this work. If they are in bed with Google; hooray, good plan.

     

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  4.  
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    KJ, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 7:19am

    Another blogger "looking" for a story

    Take a look at the original now and you will see all the retractions at the bottom and also the fact that they removed the comments section on his blog. The biggest argument I have is his complaint about ad-blocking and such. Yet the plugins he is complaining about are in the "Recommended Add-ons" section on Mozilla.org.

     

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  5.  
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    Firefox Fan, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 7:22am

    I love the Firefox browser. For my purposes it is hands-down superior to IE, Safari and Camino. Combine it the the Google toolbar on either Win-Tel or MAC pc and you will never look back.

     

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  6.  
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    Casper, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 7:22am

    Re: Google vs. Microsoft

    It would be interesting to go back and look at Google's complaints about Microsoft and see how they compare to Google/Firefox.

    They don't. Nothing that I have seen about FireFox makes me think it gives Google any specific advantage. Sure Google is the default search, but it is also by far the most popular search. You can't possible justify them using a less popular search engine and making 90% of the people that install FireFox reset it as soon as they get it.

    Most of the favoritism that Google complained about was involving the fact that Microsoft was actually working to attempt to stifle web pages it did not like and browsers it did not like. For instance, that whole fiasco where they make their Microsoft.com site not work with browsers other then IE... and did so intentionally. Recently they seem to be backing off that hyper aggressive stance (probably tired of being sued).

    PS: There is no comparison betweent he MS/IE relationship and Google/FireFox. Microsoft is actually developing IE, for their OS, for their website technologies, and for their server technologies. Google is funding FireFox and is set as the default search engine.

     

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  7.  
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    Jordan, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 7:49am

    Google and Firefox

    Well, Google + Firefox, or Microsoft + IE...hmm...all good or all bad...With Google + Firefox you get the best of everything. I use Google because they have proved themselves as a trustworthy corporation. They have the end user in mind with every decision they make. They refuse to charge users for almost anything on their site, yet still make a killing taking money from advertisers. Brilliant!

     

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  8.  
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    TheDock22, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 8:12am

    Huh?

    First, he notes that Mozilla has chosen not to include a couple of ad- and cookie-blocking plugins with the default Firefox package. Soghoian thinks that's a sign of something fishy going on, since those products would deprive Google of revenue.

    When you download Firefox, the only plug-in automatically installed is TalkBack. Why would Firefox make their download even bigger by adding a bunch of plug-ins somebody might not want anyway?

    Unless he is talking about Firefox not adding it as part of the browser (like the pop-up blocker) which would be silly as well. I mean, just because some people are overly annoyed with add does not mean the majority of Internet users care if there are some advertisements on the pages they look at. And if they do, easily fixed with a Firefox Add-In. Does this Soghoian guy even know what he is talking about?

     

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  9.  
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    nipseyrussell, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 8:48am

    right, this is stupid because NO plug ins re included, so why would one expect that the ad/cookie blockers would be?? additionally, by not making them a default i think it benefits those of us who use them by somewhat limiting the backlash from the ad-friendly

    Cant speak to the blacklist part, tho...

     

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  10.  
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    Richard, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 9:01am

    dangerous to default ad blocking

    If I were in Mozilla's shoes, I would not include any ad blocking plug-ins by default. Being one of the main revenue streams for most internet sites, it would put a nice target on Mozilla's back for a lawsuit. Just ask ReplayTV who got sued for auto-skipping commercials of recorded tv shows. It's the same reason Tivo doesn't implement automatic commercial skipping. The technology to do it is simple enough and available.

    Mozilla offering a free open platform for development allows for individuals to easily implement this and share it with everyone else. It makes it more difficult and less worth while to sue an individual for creating or installing an ad blocking plug-in. It's also hard to see someone suing Mozilla for having an open free plug-in system where individual users can do what they like.

    Sure, this may benefit Google leaving out the plug-in, but I think Mozilla is much safer and has more to gain by leaving it out of their own accord.

     

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  11.  
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    Fred, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 10:53am

    No plugins by default

    The only plugin Firefox comes with by default is the one for reporting bugs.

    There are dozens of useful plugins that do not come with Firefox. Firefox installs NO ONE's plugins. Google does not get a boost there.

    An example of plugins

    tweak network - to speed up browsing on high-speed internet

    google preview - show pictures of websites on google search results.

    customize-google - customize how google displays results

    adblock plus - to block ads

    If Firefox was about pushing google, they would bundle google sync and google notebook with the browser. Since they are both usefull, and help promote "google lock-in".

    But they don't. Firefox follows the policy they have had all along. They make a decent browser, and if the user wants to customize it, they can download and install whatever plugins they like.

    I wish they would make a customization kit. I.E. I want these plugins, these themes, and these settings installed and configured globably. Then someone can run that installer and have a customized version of Firefox. That would be good for ISP, or company deployments.

     

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  12.  
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    CharlieHorse, Nov 2nd, 2007 @ 11:21am

    the real issue here ...

    IMHBTAO (that's "in my humble but totally accurate opinion" LOL!)) this is just more of the same fud we hear all the time. my spidey sense is sensing redmond's hands at work here ...

    btw - I'm still LMAO at the article's title ... "A Dangerous Conflict ..." blah blah blah - as Bugs would say: "what a droob, what an ultramaroon, what a gull-a-bull ..."

    FUD FUD FUD and more FUD

     

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  13.  
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    Dave, Nov 4th, 2007 @ 6:34am

    Whatever

    1) Google pays for it's spot as the default search provider. Others are welcome to outbid them.

    2) Whatever development Google sponsors is still free to all, including competing businesses.

    3) The extensions aren't included by default because that's the whole point of Firefox. It includes basic functionality, and you customize it with extensions.

    4) Who else is going to provide a good phishing blacklist for free? Microsoft?

    I think he's looking for demons where none really exist. Google may be in a position to do bad, but I really don't think they have yet.

     

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