Webpresence of Philip K.

On our Abusive Relationship with Mozilla’s Firefox

Or It’s ok to not use Firefox

20 October, 2020

To clarify: In this text, I make no recommendations on what software to use or not. Instead I question Mozilla’s non-technical claims as to why you should use their browser, and accept their decisions.

Please read the following with that in mind.

My history with web browsers is probably very average. I started with Internet Explorer in the early 2000’s, switched to Firefox a few years later, and around 2010, I started using Google Chrome.

I started deviating, when I switched back to Firefox, after starting to use Linux full time and caring about software freedom and privacy. Most people have been sticking to Chrome, and it has since allegedly become the most widely used web browser. As of writing, this has also become the case in every country in the world, which wasn’t even the case just a year ago (but pretty close).

In recent years, this development has started to worry some people. Especially with Microsoft’s “Edge” browser switching to the same rendering engine as Chrome, are fearing for the “diversity of browser engines”, and what the lack thereof would mean to the health of the web-ecosystem.

One reaction to this problem has been to urge people to keep using, or switch to Mozilla Firefox. The reasoning is that only Firefox continues developing and maintaining an independent, functioning browser engine, with an independent code base. This should ensure that no single entity can turn into a monopoly, and dictate what web standards should be.

Until recently, I have also held this line. I used Firefox, not only for my own sake, but for the sake of the web. But this stance has been becoming more and more burdensome. I ask myself, are they actually representing and defending who I want to imagine that they are?

The more I think of it, the more the way Mozilla related to its users reminds me of emotional abuse.

The Abuser and its User

It goes without saying, that emotionally abusive relationships are far more serious of a problem than what Mozilla is doing. I use the term here as a metaphor, and don’t mean to belittle anyone’s experiences with the issue1

That being said, what is emotional abuse, and how does it express itself in relationships (family, romantic, professional, digital etc.)? Looking a few lists, we might recognize a few behaviours, that have to be translated from and individual relationship to how Mozilla relates to its users.

More examples can be made, but this shall suffice. Mozilla has a record of not respecting their users, and trying to ignore this by reference web diversity has been becoming an increasingly flimsy excuse.

Playing Devils Advocate

So should we give up on browser engine diversity?, some might ask? I say: At this point, what’s to loose?

For practical purposes, Chrome is dictating what the web should look like. But then again, there are limitations that Google is not probably to breach: HTTP and HTML is here to stay, with backwards compatibility.

So what advantage would they have, unconstrained by co-implementations, that they would finally be ready to make use of? A few ideas come to mind:

Not pretty, but considering the way the web is developing, none of this sounds new. All of these could be explained with ulterior motives: Copyright holders want ways to enforce their ownership, users want faster response times, website owners want more detailed statistics and their sites to be presented “as indented”. And no a non-technical audience, all these points would probably sound legitimate – with or without browser engine diversity.

Either way, it seems we are entering a dark age, when it comes to web standards. Google is one the one hand more interested in furthering the web, as a platform, but also in restricting it to increase the general dependence on their services. The chances are higher that Chrome will be more successful at this than IE in the early 2000’s.

It’s not optimism to say that it won’t be permanent. Thought that doesn’t have to mean much. The question is, will this dark age result in a renaissance?

An idea I have been intrigued by, is whether a monopoly power, with vested interest in the “web” – such as Google – would attempt to rework what a “website” is. It’s common knowledge that the web wasn’t made for what it was used for. Yet it was flexible enough to accommodate for it, too slow to realize it. Either way, we ended up with abstractions upon abstractions, backwards compatibility layers for backwards compatibility layers to create something we could have had all along.

What if Google, practically released from the constraints of having to formally abide by annoying standards decides to create a “Internet Application Description Format”, re-creating HTML+CSS+JS+… with the benefit of hindsight?

The future doesn’t look bright, but we are past the point of no return.

Final Thoughts

Nothing here is new. Some people choose to ignore it, some just don’t care. Others care, and want to do something! Anything!

Recently people have been setting up Gopher and Gemini servers, as an act of resistance. If you ask me, fun but meaningless.

Others challenge their friends to use basic HTML and cross-test their sites on different browsers. Don’t use AMP, don’t use framework-of-the-week.js, keep it simple! Do brutalism! And that is kind of what I do with my site, but just because I have no interest in learning what web development means to day (rather than actively believing in some design philosophy). Either way, the most frequented sites certainly don’t seem interested in this design philosophy. And it certainly doesn’t confront the issue of how central the WWW has become in our day-to-day lives, especially with the current pandemic.

To return to the starting point, I am fed up with Mozilla and Firefox. Their consistent lack of respect for their users, bad business decisions and urge to constantly re-create a bad chrome-clone clearly indicate that something has gone wrong – and I don’t see it as my responsibility to make up for it.

Currently I’m using “Ungoogle” Chromium, which has been regarded as a safer alternative to Firefox (e.g. see see this review), but probably isn’t perfect. Sometimes I also use Netsurf, but you limit yourself to a subset of all websites with that. It would be great to return to Firefox and the open web one day, but if Mozilla keeps abusing their position, it doesn’t seem worth it.

I implore everyone to think about this, and make a concious decision. Continue using Firefox if you want to, but don’t fool yourself that it means anything.

  1. If you take issue with the word “abuse”, please consider donating to your local women’s shelter.↩︎