Mozilla has always presented Firefox as the champion of open source and privacy on the Web, at least in contrast to the likes of Google Chrome. That doesn’t mean it hadn’t had a few missteps along the way, like its controversial “Sponsored Tiles”. It’s walking on thin ice again with its new “Firefox Advance” Test Pilot experiment that uses a smidgen of machine learning to recommend sites related to what you’ve been browsing. Fortunately, it is, at least for now, still an experiment you don’t even have to use.
Mozilla seems to have fallen in love with recommendation systems, from that ill-fated Sponsored Tiles to the Activity Stream it did end up shipping in the latest versions of the web browser. It wants users to discover more of the Web while still staying comfortably within their preferred topics and subjects. And the only way that’s possible is through crawling through your web history.
Advance’s use is simple enough to understand. It’s a Web Extension, which means it isn’t part of the core Firefox package (yet). It analyzes the webpage you’re viewing at the moment and makes a recommendation on what to view next. It can also make recommendations based on your browsing history. In both cases, the recommendations are displayed on a sidebar that won’t disrupt your browsing activity.
Where it might get a bit problematic is on how Advance makes those recommendations. It needs to “learn” from your browsing habits as well as learn what sites on the Web are related to things it thinks you’re interested in. Mozilla itself may not have the capacity for such a machine learning experiment, which is why it has tapped machine learning startup Laserlike to do the heavy processing.
So, yes, you will be handing your browsing history over to a third-party to have their machines analyze your data and Mozilla wants would-be Advance testers to understand that. Users will always be able to pause or stop the data collection and even see what data Laserlike already has harvested from their Firefox browser. They have, however, lesser control over what happens in transit or if Laserlike ever gets hacked. Good thing, then, that Advance is completely opt-in and will hopefully stay that way.