by Timothy Lee

Filed Under:
firefox, open source

google, mozilla

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.

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  1. identicon
    Richard, 2 Nov 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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