What Does the Fox Say?

21 August 2020

If you are reading this, you are probably using Chrome. Google’s web browser makes up nearly three quarters of the browser market. It’s perfectly understandable, since Chrome is a good browser. It should be, given how much money Google has invested in it. But Chrome is terrible for privacy. If you are logged into Google while you surf, the Big G tracks everywhere you visit, every search you make, and will save all your passwords if you let it. Even if you aren’t logged in, Google has placed plenty of hooks into Chromium to follow you around.

If you’d rather not be tracked so much, you need to use another browser. But there aren’t too many choices. Apple’s Safari only works on Mac/iOS, and the Microsoft Edge browser runs on Blink, which is part of Google’s Chromium project. That leaves Mozilla’s Firefox.

Mozilla is a not-for-profit that focuses on privacy-friendly applications. Its flagship project is Firefox web browser. Firefox is an excellent browser, and while it collects information about you by default, you can block that fairly easily. That’s because Firefox is Free/Libre Open Source (FLOSS). You can use it however you want, go through the source code, and even fork the code to make your own browser.

But Firefox only has about 8% of the browser marketshare. And since you can download and use Firefox for free, it is really difficult for Mozilla to pay for its maintenance and upkeep. Mozilla has reach a crisis point that they recently laid off nearly a quarter of its workforce. It’s trying to streamline things to stay afloat.

Lucky for them, they get a big chunk of money from Google. This year Google paid Mozilla 300 million dollars so that Google’s search engine can be the Firefox default. This is the lion’s share of Mozilla’s funding. Sure, this draws more folks into the Google search fold, but it’s really about making sure there is an independent “competitor” in the browser market. As long as Firefox is around, Google can argue that folks have a choice of browsers.

This highlights the fundamental challenge for FLOSS software. Who pays for it? As Heinlein would say, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Most projects have a way for you to donate, but that will never earn them enough to cover costs. Most FLOSS software is paid for by corporations who either donate money or pay for people to work on the project. That isn’t necessarily bad, but it does mean that FLOSS projects are often vulnerable to the interests of corporations.