Mozilla has a warning for web users: the push by some companies to squeeze ever more internet consumption into apps risks undermining the neutral, public internet.
The urge to caution comes amid a widening debate over the way clunky advertisements and behavioural trackers have slowed down the web and introduced security risks for unsuspecting users. Companies including Apple and Facebook have rolled out their own ways of coping with the problem, from introducing support for ad-blocking in iOS to a special feature in Facebook’s mobile app, called instant articles, which hosts web content on Facebook’s servers to speed loading times.
Though well-intentioned, moves such as these could create new gatekeepers and silos of information access online, said Mozilla, which produces the popular Firefox web browser.
“I would definitely say that’s something we’d be concerned about,” Chris Riley, Mozilla’s head of public policy, said in an interview. “We are strong believers in the power of the web as a generative and pro-innovation environment.”
By circumventing the flawed internet with technical workarounds that drive more web users to proprietary platforms, Silicon Valley firms could fragment the open internet — and draw focus away from the key principles Mozilla says should motivate tech companies. For example, companies should improve the web’s overall performance and security instead of blocking or banning specific types of content, such as advertising. They should also offer users “meaningful controls,” according to a blog post Mozilla published recently.
“If content blocking creates new gatekeepers who can pick winners and losers in the publishing space or who favour their own content over others’, it ultimately harms competition and innovation,” the post read.
Facebook declined to comment on the matter, and Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Other companies have sought to speed up the internet by stripping away all but the most important code in a web page. This is the logic underpinning Accelerated Mobile Pages, a project by Google. Web sites that use Google’s code not only stand to load more quickly for technical reasons, but the faster speed also may cause those pages to be ranked higher in Google searches.
Efforts to carve up the web with alternative services that circumvent the internet, or specific parts of it, would lead to the “slow death of the Web,” predicted the Verge’s Nilay Patel.
“So it’s Apple vs Google vs Facebook, all with their own revenue platforms,” said Patel. “Google has the web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone. This is the newest and biggest war in tech going today.”
It’s a war that Mozilla is trying to stop.
“If we can’t figure out how to improve consumer trust, our industry is in for a very, very difficult future,” Riley said. “We’re at sort of the precipice of a broad understanding of the threats to consumer trust going forward, and content blocking is one major piece of that.”
He added, “I do think there are going to be opportunities to work within the tech industry to build a better path together.”