My question to Mozilla: Whose web is it anyway?

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My question to Mozilla: Whose web is it anyway?

Tue, 03/20/2018 - 06:30
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There's a battle between webmasters and consumers, with browser manufacturers in the middle.

Mozilla, the makers of Firefox, just announced that they are looking to block in-page popups (also known as overlays). These are the kind of things that commonly interrupt you to ask you to sign up to newsletters or to 'Like on Facebook'. In-page popups are very different to the traditional (and much more intrusive) popups which all popular browsers now all block, something that isn't at all controversial.

I have some real concerns about how Mozilla is acting here. Initially I put my thoughts up on Twitter, but I deleted them when I realized that this is a complicated issue that Twitter absolutely cannot handle, and likely would just result in a knee-jerk response. I covered some of the problems of social media in my last article. So please bear with me while I try and articulate my position, which is a nuanced one.

The Danger Zone

Unlike traditional popups, in-page popups aren't powered by any particular technique. They are just the result of using completely normal HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to paint the web page so it appears to the user to have an overlay there. In terms of implementation it's no different than a menu that follows the scrollbar, a live-chat system, or an EU cookie warning. Therefore removing them isn't simply a case of tuning how you apply web standards, it requires the web browser to fundamentally interfere with a page's design, either by second guessing what a site is doing or via a 3rd-party human programmer intentionally manipulating the code of a site. Either of these are major impositions.

I think the discussion here is fundamentally about the negotiation of rights and the negotiation of power, and that is a complicated topic that I'd encourage people to give some real thought to.

You could say that:

  1. A webmaster has a right to do what they like on their own website.
  2. A browser manufacturer has a right to process webpages in any way they think is suitable.
  3. A consumer has a right to a high-quality web experience, or at least to favor and adopt tools that will lead to such an experience.

This is pretty typical for a "rights" discussion: everybody's rights come into conflict. The "Right to bear arms" vs the "Right to safety in public". The "Woman's right to choose" (abortion) vs the "Right to life". "(Unrestricted) Freedom of speech" vs "Freedom from hate". The truth is rights are human constructs, colored by our personal biases, and always have to be negotiated. Or at least, they should be negotiated - rather than merely being decided on the basis of who in society holds the most power, which is what happens if we don't have these kinds of conversations. We should also not forget that rights come with responsibilities, they are 2-sides of the same coin.

The vast majority of people (and probably readers) are going to see the rights of the consumer with primacy, which is not unreasonable because companies do annoying things to us all the time. However, most people would also be happy for Firefox to block all ads, and all tracking, along with the overlays. Even if we put aside the rights of those who put their neck-out to make free-content, on a very practical level we also should consider what happens if we take away the ability for a website to break-even.

For a small news site that is trying hard to cover costs, a little overlay asking to signup to a newsletter when you've got to the end of the article may be enough to bring them into profitability. If such sites are not profitable, sites will have to find some other way to make money. "That's fine, they will" I hear people shout - but the cynic in me says that the new way of making money will probably be as propaganda vessels for investors/advertisers/partisan-groups, damaging independent journalism - because that's broadly what has been happening across the news sector in recent years. Clearly some people can afford to run quality sites as a hobby, but please consider that this is a position of privilege that most people aren't in, and very few can do at scale.

The Conversation We Need to Have Now

At this point you're probably thinking I am in favor of in-page popups. Actually nothing could be further from the truth, I hate them, and I would have no problem with them being banned. My problem is if it happens unilaterally, in this case by Mozilla, then we are denied the conversation about rights we should be having. Plus, the implementation of a block will likely result in unintended technical problems.

A proper conversation should include:

  1. The standards that webmasters should meet (the website's responsibilities, the consumer's rights)
  2. What is reasonable for a browser to change on an independent website (the browser's rights and responsibilities)
  3. New ways of websites making money, such as micro-payments (the consumer's responsibilities, the website's rights)
  4. Practically, how to detect or catalog unacceptable in-page popups, or change web standards, so that legitimate behavior (e.g. cookie warnings, or instant messaging systems) is not broken
  5. Timescales for implementation, so websites can plan compliance without things becoming rushed or broken.

The last point is of great practical importance. Even if all this discussion about rights is overly theoretical, we have to consider the practical problem of websites suddenly breaking, or organizations being badly wrong-footed rushing out changes.

A Better Way Forward?

So, what I think actually should happen is as follows:

  1. Mozilla should start a group deciding what is and isn't acceptable for a website to do, perhaps throwing in a draft standard.
  2. Other organizations would join Mozilla on the group.
  3. The group will go through wide consultation, to make sure it can create a consensus.
  4. And then publish a clear set of guidelines, along with a planned implementation schedule.
  5. The broad web should implement these guidelines in an orderly manner.

This way it is not any one interested party using its power to impose things on the web: it is a genuine and well-thought out exercise in improving the web that almost everybody can agree to.

And until that process happens? The current 'free market' set-up isn't too bad, and it's one that balances the rights of different parties fairly well. Consumers can almost always shun websites they don't like. We can do better, but let's do it through consensus rather than by letting things be imposed through power.

I was trying to think how this kind of approach lines up politically (given how everything nowadays is very politicized), and I think it doesn't actually line up well. It is not Libertarian because it's trying to stop a kind of 'wild west' approach to the problem - what Mozilla is doing right now is probably the Libertarian thing. It's not Socialist because it is trying to consider the needs of content creators, not just the broad citizenry - it's not saying everything should be free. And it's not Conservative because it is trying to create new guidelines, it's progressive. To me that shows it's probably the right way to approach things, because it's a bit of give-and-take from everyone, negotiating the best way to proceed. Blending the free market, with assigned rights and responsibilities, and broadly driven through consensus.

What do you think? I'd love to see your comments.

About the Author: Chris Graham is a lead developer for Composr CMS. Composr is a feature-rich website engine, optimized for ambitious folks who fall somewhere between newbie and coder.