Most internet activity is happening behind the scenes. Companies track you as you surf from site to site, hoovering up data that is increasingly at risk of being exposed by a data breach. At a time when so many services are free, it’s difficult to know how big tech makes its money and how much your information is worth.
Mozilla is looking to change that by monetizing and diversifying the features offered by its Firefox browser. To make sense of what’s happening on the web, and how the browser might change, we spoke to Firefox SVP David Camp about how Mozilla is looking to give control back to its users. Here are edited and condensed excerpts of the conversation.
Having been at the company for over a decade, what is it that Mozilla does that other companies do not?
We focus on people, which is different than focusing on customers or on users. We focus on what people need and what they deserve. We have our set of values, we have the Mozilla Manifesto, and supporting those values is what keeps me here.
One of the things that I really enjoy about Mozilla—I’ve worked in open source, basically, my entire career. Open source has taken off since I started working on it, in a really big way, and it was always one of those places that both does the open-source thing, but also goes to where users are. We don’t restrict ourselves to the backend stuff. If you into open-source values, and actually building consumer software, Mozilla is awesome.
How have you seen the company, and those values, develop over time?
It’s funny; in a lot of ways, it hasn’t changed and in a lot of ways it’s grown up quite a bit. The very first feature I worked on when I joined in 2006 was our anti-phishing support. It was there to help users understand what was going on—protect them from threats online—in a way that was [supposed] to happen by default, that didn’t require them to think about it. Thirteen years later, it’s still what we’re doing.
As a company we’ve evolved quite a bit; we’ve learned a lot. As the industry changed, we’ve become better at shipping software. When I joined, it was a bunch of engineers building what engineers build. That’s good, but it has limited opportunities to help users. We’ve since grown immensely, both in size and capability.
You mentioned your users’ needs; what are they?
People use the internet, and they do these things they love and that’s cool, but what we see is that there are things on the internet that are not what you expect. When I go to a website I’m having a conversation with that site, metaphorically speaking, and there are parts of that conversation that are expected. Like ads. But then there’s a bunch of stuff going on behind the scenes that users actually aren’t aware is going on. They don’t know that those ads are also forming an opinion about them. It’s not a clear part of the value exchange.
If I go to Google, for example, and I give them a search term, they give me results. That’s a clear understanding. It’s a lot harder to understand that ad for some product is also forming an opinion about you, recording that opinion about you, sending that opinion to companies you don’t even know were part of the discussion you’re having. We’re not here to tell you that it’s scary, but we want the value exchange to be more clear so users can have control over it.
What we’ve found, though, is that control is not quite enough. It’s not easy to understand everything that’s going on. A lot of people just want to use the internet the way they use it, and so we’ve been shifting to making more decisions. We still give you the control, but the default is making sure that [you don’t have] to spend your time understanding how the internet is watching you.
Do you think the internet needs to be that complex?
In some sense, yes. There’s no tool in the web developers’ toolbox to make you easy to track. Everything that we’ve added to the platform is there because it enables an experience for the user that people appreciate and love. Like any platform these are complex features, and for the most part the developers are the only ones who need to know about them.
What has happened in the intervening years is that folks have taken those individual features and found ways to use them in…emergent ways that are not really in the people’s best interests. And emergent properties are hard to control, so what we’re doing is figuring out what the patterns are and blocking the individual patterns for people who are actually using it incorrectly.
On the subject of control, what are the main things Firefox is doing right now to keep the web safe? You recently introduced an Enhanced Tracking feature, Firefox Lockwise (formerly Lockbox).
Yeah, I think it boils down to things that are happening behind the scenes. Users need some control over them, and they need it by default. For Lockwise, people don’t necessarily understand how their passwords are being exploited and breached, which is also why we have Firefox Monitor [a tool that tells you if your information has been part of a data breach].
And VPNs too. What can Firefox offer that other VPN companies can’t?
We step back and say “our users trust us.” We step back and say, “how should we use that trust to help people?” We’re not building Lockwise because we want to dominate the password manager market; we’re building Lockwise because we think it’s something users don’t see enough of.
We want Firefox to feel like a complete solution wherever possible. When we’re investing in VPNs, our intention is not to bring some magical new technology. It’s a thing that’s available that not enough people know about.
And what about Firefox Premium, the upcoming paid-for browser? Because that looks like a significant change in the way that most people access the web.
Well, we have a core product—Firefox—that’s been free, that will stay free. Traditionally the way we monetize that is with our Google Search deal, and that’s good for some things, but there are things that we don’t love about that.
What we’re looking at is building new services, looking at straightforward ways to monetize this in a way in which the user has the information needed to make the decision.
What are the things you don’t love about it? That users maybe aren’t conscious of how it works?
For me personally, I think the web benefits from different ways to monetize. I think the value exchange of “You give me money, and I give you products” is better understood by users. So this way, it’s a direct relationship with the user rather than an indirect relationship through Google.
What sort of functions do you expect people to pay for with Premium?
We’re still working that out. I don’t pretend to be personally able to guess that. This is the sort of data we get by surveys like the VPN one, studies and data. We’re still in the process of looking at what we can do.
Let’s rephrase that, then: What would you would pay for in a premium browser?
I like to pay for services in general. When a company is providing web services, and I know that every time I use it I’m using resources on their servers, I don’t want my data to be sold to make up for a so-called premium experience. I want to know how they’re making money. I personally pay for VPN, I pay for a password manager.
So it’s security, and use of data, that draws the line between what you’d pay for?
I’m not sure. I want the service to serve me as a person rather than [as a data point].
But do you think there’s a concern that a tiered browser could start a tiered internet system? Those that are capable of paying will be secure on the internet, those who are not capable of paying will theoretically not be secure on the internet?
I think there’s a concern. Obviously our goal is not to be in that situation. The way we say it internally is that “security is not for sale,” and security is something people deserve. We are looking for other ways to fund that, so that we can bring it to more people. But we’re still working it out.
Do you think other companies might follow suit? A Chrome or Safari Premium?
I don’t like to speculate too much on other companies, but whenever you’re evaluating a technology provider you look at their incentives. Apple’s incentive is to sell hardware, so I don’t expect one. Google has not historically looked for more transparent ways to monetize users; the current economy is one they’re well equipped and optimized to work with. But if Google wanted to go in a Premium direction I think that’d be good for people too.
Firefox is really looking for ways to diversify things; VPNs, Premium, news subscription services. Apple is doing a similar thing with its services. And if Tim Cook can offer $8,000 worth of content for $20, content’s value becomes $20. If you can block ads for $5 per month, the cost of ads on news sites becomes $5. Do you think there is a change in how things on the internet are being defined in terms of their actual dollar worth?
That’s a good question. Certainly, we are seeing an evolution how value is monetized by the companies that we use. It’s uncontroversial to say that it has had an impact on the availability of that work. Newspapers used to run on a physical subscription model, then they went whole hog on advertising. That monetization certainly changed the experience, not just in how it was valued but also in what was valuable about it.
It’s worth spending some time with some of the folks at Pocket [the internet bookmarking site Mozilla acquired in 2017]. They talk about finding content that’s worthy of your time and attention. And I think, experimenting with a more direct exchange—money for content—leads to different styles of content. I think it’s just about changing how we express that value and how we pay for it.
Finally, what do you think is the most exciting thing happening on the internet right now?
I’m really excited about what new form factors are doing for creation. If you talk to our folks doing VR and AR, companies are making creation easier and more available to people. But in my role as a head of Firefox, well, for 15 years nobody has cared about privacy, but we do. And now as a society, not just as an industry, people are starting to assert their right to control their lives. Individuals [are] taking control of their experiences. That’s what excites me.