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Disrespect intended: Mozilla thinks it knows better

Matt Asay | July 14, 2016
To make Firefox more relevant, Mozilla Context Graph elbows out authors and decides what readers are interested in

Disrespect intended: Mozilla thinks it knows better

ozilla surely means well, but with its new Context Graph it may not end up doing well.

In an attempt to make web browsers "immediately useful instead of demanding input when you launched them," as Mozilla vice president of product Nick Nguyen styles it, Mozilla hopes to enrich every web page with Mozilla-imposed links to content that can be "useful and magical"; that is, content the author of the web page didn't choose but that Mozilla thinks you'll like anyway.

It's a noble attempt to break the web free of Google and Facebook control. What's not so noble, however, is the attempt to supplant author control with so-called user control, as web visionary Yehuda Katz points out in a series of tweets.

We want the web to bloom freely

It's not hard to see why Mozilla would be interested in "freeing" the web. After all, its future depends on rising relevance as a browser. Although Firefox used to account for nearly a quarter of all desktop browser usage, today it has slipped to a mere 8 percent in desktop browser market share statistics, compared to Google Chrome's 49 percent and Microsoft Internet Explorer's 32 percent. In mobile, it doesn't even register -- so anything that would make Mozilla "great again" is worth trying.

A less cynical reading, however, acknowledges Nguyen's concern that "incumbents now have the power to spend their competition out of existence." Using forest biodiversity as a metaphor, Nguyen worries about the effect "tall trees" like Facebook and Google have on the rest of the forest:

Tall trees are great  --  for tall trees. What concerns us is the long term impact of a world where a small number of companies dominate the web for discovery and services, and the leverage that creates. In this world of tall trees, the only path for new ideas requires either payment or acquisition, either of which tend to cost a lot of money.

This isn't fearmongering alone. Today, Facebook and Google collectively drive 75 percent of all referrals to news websites. In so doing, these two web giants effectively control what we see and, by extension, heavily influence how we think.

The problem, however, is that Mozilla's Context Graph isn't necessarily an improvement on this problem.

Deconstruct the author

In this article, I've included links that give greater context on this topic, and I chose those links intentionally to deepen the context this article provides. I've selected -- curated -- them based on the position I'm trying to relate and the analysis I bring to bear. You don't have to click on them, but they could enrich your understanding of this issue.


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