Firefox to Block Online Tracking by Default

Credit: MozillaCredit: Mozilla

Doctors spend a lot of time figuring out the differences between a patient’s symptoms and their actual problem. A fever needs to be treated, sure, but it’s also just the body’s way of indicating the presence of an underlying issue. Mozilla announced today that it wants upcoming releases of Firefox to address the real issue many people have with browsing the web–hidden trackers built into pretty much every website–instead of just relieving the symptoms.

The most obvious symptom of internet tracking is the weirdly personal and oddly persistent advertisement. Sometimes it seems like the same ad, which just happens to relate to something you were discussing with a friend not that long ago, is appearing on every single website. That’s because so many websites use tracking with the express intent of showing more relevant ads.

Tracking also makes it take longer for web pages to load. Not everyone who uses some form of ad-blocker does so because they want to protect their privacy; some just want to make browsing the web faster. In today’s announcement, Mozilla cited a study by Ghostery showing that 55.4 percent of the time it takes to load a web page was spent loading third-party trackers. Note, however, that Ghostery’s business relies on blocking trackers.

Those are just two obvious symptoms. According to Mozilla, “many of the harms of unchecked data collection are completely opaque to users and experts alike, only to be revealed piecemeal by major data breaches. In the near future, Firefox will—by default—protect users by blocking tracking while also offering a clear set of controls to give our users more choice over what information they share with sites.”

The company’s going to release a series of features to Firefox meant to help address the problem of internet tracking. The first will automatically block trackers that slow down page load times, with a shield study in September leading to a full release in Firefox 63 if all goes well. The second will prevent cross-site tracking. It’s already available in Firefox Nightly, will be tested in September and is meant to debut with Firefox 65.

The final new feature is devoted to “mitigating harmful practices,” including “fingerprinting” users based on the devices they use to make it easier to monitor their activity on multiple websites. It also includes the increasingly common practice of deploying cryptocurrency mining scripts, or cryptojacking, to mine cryptocurrencies like Ethereum without visitors’ knowledge or consent. There’s no timeline for this feature’s debut.

All of these updates should help Firefox users feel better about browsing the web. Mozilla said it can’t totally cure the problem, but it can at least make sure people are protected by default and that website operators ask permission to track people instead of just doing it automatically. As companies like Google face increasing scrutiny for their monitoring practices, Dr. Firefox is here to treat as many problems as it can.