Mozilla today announced that it is bringing back the Firefox Test Pilot program to allow users to try out new features before they are ready for mainstream usage. While the name is familiar, though, the overall goals of the new program are a bit different from the last iteration and the focus is less on crazy experiments and more on beta testing products that are almost ready for public consumption.
The Firefox Test Pilot program has gone through its share of iterations. First launched three years ago, it quickly became the incubation ground for a number of new features. In January of this year, though, the organization decided to shut it down.
Why bring it back now? Clearly, Mozilla was getting valuable feedback from the Test Pilot users, who were surely among the most dedicated Firefox fans.
The organization says that it wanted to take time to evolve the program and this new version is indeed somewhat different. “The difference with the newly relaunched Test Pilot program is that these products and services may be outside the Firefox browser, and we will be far more polished, and just one step shy of general public release,” the team explains.
The new Test Pilot program then is less about giving users the opportunity to test some of the Firefox team’s more eccentric ideas and more like a traditional public beta test program.
The new VPN project, the team writes, is a good example of this approach. It’s a Test Pilot project because the team wants to fine-tune it a bit more before its public release.
The Firefox Private Network isn’t so much about trying to circumvent geo-restrictions and instead mostly focuses on giving users access to a private network when they are on public WiFi and helping them hide their locations from website and ad trackers (and indeed, a lot of the new Test Pilot projects will focus on privacy). That’s probably why Mozilla doesn’t refer to it as a VPN either, though that’s obviously what it is.
“One of the key learnings from recent events is that there is growing demand for privacy features,” Mozilla’s Marissa Wood writes today. “The Firefox Private Network is an extension which provides a secure, encrypted path to the web to protect your connection and your personal information anywhere and everywhere you use your Firefox browser.”
Mozilla is partnering with Cloudflare for this launch and Cloudflare is providing the proxy server for it. It’s available as a Firefox extension, but only in the U.S. and fore Firefox desktop users. For now, it’s available for free, though there have been some hints that Mozilla will at some point start charging for the service. Since it’s not a full VPN service, it remains to be seen how much the organization will be able to charge for it. Last year, Mozilla partnered with ProtonVPN and offered that service for $10 per month.
It’s worth noting that Opera, too, includes a free built-in VPN service , which includes the ability to set your location to either the Americas, Europe or Asia.
If you want to give the new service a try, you only need a Firefox account and sign up here .
From today Firefox users who update to the latest version of the browser will find a pro-privacy setting flipped for them on desktop and Android smartphones, assuming they didn’t already have the anti-tracking cookie feature enabled.
It’s now finishing what it started by flipping the default switch across the board in v69.0 of the browser.
The feature takes clear aim at third party cookies that are used to track Internet users for creepy purposes such as ad profiling. (Firefox relies on the Disconnect list to identify creepy cookies to block.)
The anti-tracking feature also takes aim at cryptomining: A background practice which can drain CPU and battery power, negatively impacting the user experience. Again, Firefox will now block cryptomining by default, not only when user activated.
In a blog post about the latest release Mozilla says it represents a “milestone” that marks “a major step in our multi-year effort to bring stronger, usable privacy protections to everyone using Firefox”.
“Currently over 20% of Firefox users have Enhanced Tracking Protection on. With today’s release, we expect to provide protection for 100% of ours users by default,” it predicts, underlining the defining power of default settings.
Firefox users with ETP enabled will see a shield icon in the URL bar to denote the tracker blocking is working. Clicking on this icon takes users to a menu where they can view a list of all the tracking cookies that are being blocked. Users are also able to switch off tracking cookie blocking on a per site basis, via this Content Blocking menu.
While blocking tracking cookies reduces some tracking of internet users it does not offer complete protection for privacy. Mozilla notes that ETP does not yet block browser fingerprinting scripts from running by default, for example.
Browser fingerprinting is another prevalent privacy-hostile technique that’s used to track and profile web users without knowledge or consent by linking online activity to a computer’s configuration and thereby tying multiple browser sessions back to the same device-user.
It’s an especially pernicious technique because it can erode privacy across browser sessions and even different browsers — which an Internet user might be deliberately deploying to try to prevent profiling.
A ‘Strict Mode’ in the Firefox setting can be enabled by Firefox users in the latest release to block fingerprinting. But it’s not on by default.
Mozilla says a future release of the browser will flip fingerprinting blocking on by default too.
The latest changes in Firefox continue Mozilla’s strategy — announced a year ago — of pro-actively defending its browser users’ privacy by squeezing the operational range of tracking technologies.
In the absence of a robust regulatory framework to rein in the outgrowth of the adtech ‘industrial data complex’ that’s addicted to harvesting Internet users’ data for ad targeting, browser makers have found themselves at the coal face of the fight against privacy-hostile tracking technologies.
And some are now playing an increasingly central — even defining role — as they flip privacy and anti-tracking defaults.
Notably, earlier this month , the open source WebKit browser engine, which underpins Apple’s Safari browser, announced a new tracking prevention policy that puts privacy on the same footing as security, saying it would treat attempts to circumvent this as akin to hacking.
It has also said it’s working on technology to reduce fingerprinting. And recently announced a long term proposal to involve its Chromium browser engine in developing a new open standard for privacy.
Though cynics might suggest the adtech giant is responding to competitive pressure on privacy by trying to frame and steer the debate in a way that elides its own role in data mining Internet users at scale for (huge) profit.
Thus its tardy privacy pronouncements and long term proposals look rather more like an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass and buy time for Chrome to keep being used to undermine web users’ privacy — instead of Google being forced to act now and close down privacy-hostile practices that benefit its business.
Chris Beard announced via blog post today his plans to step down as Mozilla Corporation CEO at the end of 2019. Beard joined the web software company in 2004, remaining an employee since then, with the exception of 2013, when he left to become Greylock’s “executive-in-residence,” while remaining on as an advisor.
Beard was appointed interim CEO for Mozilla in April 2014, coming on as full time chief executive in July of that same year. The company has seen a bit of a resurgence in recent years, after having ceded much of its browser marketshare to the likes of Google and Apple. Firefox has undergone something of a renaissance over the past year, as have the company’s security tools.
“Today our products, technology and policy efforts are stronger and more resonant in the market than ever, and we have built significant new organizational capabilities and financial strength to fuel our work,” Beard said in the blog post. “From our new privacy-forward product strategy to initiatives like the State of the Internet we’re ready to seize the tremendous opportunity and challenges ahead to ensure we’re doing even more to put people in control of their connected lives and shape the future of the internet for the public good.”
Mozilla is currently seeking a replacement for Beard, though he’s agreed to stay on through year’s end. Executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker announced in her own post that she’s agreed to step into an interim role if needed.
“One of the accomplishments of Chris’ tenure is the strength and depth of Mozilla Corporation today. The team is strong. Our organization is strong, and our future full of opportunities,” Baker said. “It is precisely the challenges of today’s world, and Mozilla’s opportunities to improve online life, that bring so many of us to Mozilla. I personally remain deeply focused on Mozilla. I’ll be here during Chris’ tenure, and I’ll be here after his tenure ends. I’m committed to Mozilla, and to making serious contributions to improving online life and developing new technical capabilities that are good for people.”
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