Firefox’s battles for the future of the web

Why do you choose the browser you use? Maybe you think it loads pages more quickly. Maybe it’s made by the same firm as your device and you think it’s more compatible in some way. You prefer the graphics, perhaps, or it just happened to be pre-installed on your machine. Maybe you’re not even aware that there’s a choice.

In reality, two-thirds of us have been funnelled into using Google’s Chrome, but browser choice also hides a contest about the openness of the web and how data is collected about users. One organisation that has always put such issues to the forefront is Mozilla.

The not-for-profit foundation, which has as its aim the promotion of “openness, innovation and participation on the internet”, is best known for the Firefox browser, which it started developing in 2003. But the foundation was set up to shepherd the Mozilla organisation, which was formed in 1998 to oversee the development of a suite of web tools developed from another browser – Netscape Communicator.

Communicator was Netscape’s fourth browser; the first came out in 1994, making it the first commercial web browser the world had ever seen.

All of which makes Mozilla the web’s oldest company or at least “the oldest thing on the consumer internet”, as the foundation’s chair, Mitchell Baker, put it when I met her in London recently.

Mozilla has had its ups and downs over the years: making a hugely popular web browser twice over, before succumbing each time to crushing competition from a well-funded tech behemoth. In the mid-90s, Netscape was killed by Microsoft with its Internet Explorer. Then, in the late 2000s, a resurgent Firefox faced near-fatal competition from Google’s Chrome. Now, hopefully, it is on another upswing.

“For the last – I don’t know – three or four years, I’d say Mozilla has been remaking the organisation itself,” Baker says. The Firefox browser, which had resisted the dominance of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, found itself faced with a far hardier opponent in the shape of Google Chrome.

However, the rise of the potentially monopolistic web platform also creates a new opportunity – in fact, an urgent new mission. Mozilla is no longer fighting for market share of its browser: it is fighting for the future of the web.

“In the early days, we thought all companies and social networks cared about us and cared for us,” says Baker, speaking for web users as a whole. “And increasingly it has become clear that, no, you need someone looking out for you.”

Chrome, the world’s most popular browser, is made by the world’s fourth-most valuable company, Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The world’s second-most popular browser, Safari, is made by the world’s second-most valuable company – Apple. In third place is Firefox.

Baker’s pitch is that only Mozilla is motivated, first and foremost, to make using the web a pleasurable experience. Google’s main priority is to funnel user data into the enormous advertising engine that accounts for most of its revenue. Apple’s motivation is to ensure that customers continue to buy a new iPhone every couple of years and don’t switch to Android.

“Google wants the web to go through Google,” Aral Balkan, the activist and founder of the internet democracy campaign site ind.ie, tweeted earlier this month. “It already mostly does: with eyes on 70% to 80% of the web.”

The company has been accused of using its control of Chrome and of Google search to warp the very fabric of the internet.

Take “accelerated mobile pages”, or AMP. The project saw Google hosting websites on its own servers, warping the web addresses so they all began with “google.com”.

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