Firefox Suggest & Privacy

I’ve long recommended Firefox as the best browser for most people (read this article to understand why). All in all, I find that it’s both secure and private, and it runs on all major devices and platforms. But Google’s Chrome browser remains king of the hill, by a long shot. What you may not know is that the guts of the Chrome browser – called Chromium – is behind three of the other top browsers: Edge, Opera and Brave. Safari and Firefox use their own web browser engines, and of those two, Firefox is the only browser that runs on Windows and Android as well as macOS and iOS (iPhones and iPads).

Firefox Isn’t Free

Every popular web browser is free to download. However, developing, marketing and maintaining a web browser takes a lot of people and these people need to be paid. Safari, Chrome and Edge have massive, trillion dollar companies backing them – companies that make money on all sorts of other things (including selling ads to you based on information they learn from your browsing habits). So, how does Mozilla (the company and organization behind Firefox) pay their employees?

Sadly and ironically, Mozilla makes most of its money by partnering with privacy-hostile search engines like Google, Yandex and Bandu. That’s a pretty shaky business foundation, particularly when you’re trying to tout privacy as one of your main selling points. Of course, you can easily change your default search engine to something more private. But few people do, which is why being the default is worth so much money to them. Mozilla does make some other products that cost money and they do accept donations, but that’s not nearly enough to sustain them.

Sponsored Search Results

Firefox has just rolled out a new feature that is another attempt at bringing in extra revenue: Firefox Suggest. In most modern browsers, the search bar and the address bar have merged into a single text box. You start typing your website address or search terms, and as you type the letters, you start seeing suggested destinations. This is a process of mapping a set of words (or partial words) to corresponding websites and topics. Until now, these suggestions were only coming from your designated search engine.

But now Mozilla is also suggesting additional options with the new Firefox Suggest feature. I’m sure that they are somehow getting money to show you these suggestions, and probably get more money for the ones you actually click on.

I’ve railed against ad companies like Google and Facebook in the past, but it’s not because they’re selling ads. It’s because they track you everywhere and hoover up ungodly amounts of personal, private data to target those ads. You can serve up ads based solely on context, without tracking people and building secret dossiers on them. And you can still make money doing that. And that’s what Firefox is doing here. In fact, unless you opt in, all the suggestions are purely local – unlike search engine real time suggestions, Firefox sources their suggestions locally without leaving your device.

Disabling Firefox Suggest

You may wish to leave this feature on. It helps to support Firefox and we need them to survive. It costs you no money to do this, and at least so far, it doesn’t seem to be a privacy problem. Or you could just donate money directly to the Mozilla Foundation, which is what I do.

But if you want to disable this feature, then do the following:

  1. Open Firefox Settings from the “burger” menu at the upper right
  2. Search on “Suggestions” using the “Find in Settings” search box at the upper right
  3. In the section “Address Bar – Firefox Suggest” section, uncheck the “Contextual suggestions” box.
  4. Alternatively, you can leave that selecting, but unselect the sub-option “Include occasional sponsored suggestions”.

You can see this in the example below.

Again… if you want to support Firefox, you can probably just leave this turned on and not worry about it. (If something changes, I’ll be sure to let you know.)