Mozilla and Pocket want to make targeted advertising ethical

Pocket in Firefox

Mozilla, creator of Firefox, is conducting an experiment to see if online advertising can be made ethical.

Ads pay the bills for most 'free' tools and services – including browsers – and those ads are more effective (and less annoying) if they're tailored to suit your interests. Mozilla accepts that fact, but it wants to see if it's possible to customize ads without compromising users' privacy.

It's doing this through Pocket – a save-it-for-later service that lets you save articles and videos that you'd like to read or watch later. Mozilla integrated Pocket into Firefox in 2015, and early last year Mozilla acquired the company so the two could work even more closely.

Your browser, your data

When Firefox Quantum launched late last year, it came with a new feature: Pocket Recommendations. When you open a new tab, you'll see a selection of stories recommended by Pocket. These are articles and videos other users have saved to Pocket, and are based on your browsing history.

However, your data is never sent to Mozilla, Pocket, or any third parties. Instead, all the personalization happens on your own device. 

"It does use your browsing history to determine what to show you, but that all happens client-side," Nate Weiner, CEO and Founder of Pocket, told TechRadar. "Your data isn't sent to any servers. It's a pretty cool way to get recommendations, and users don't have to give up their privacy."

For a small group of Firefox users, those Pocket Recommendations include the occasional sponsored article (ie an advertisement). 

"We've been doing some sponsored content for the last few years in Pocket, and we've started experimenting with showing the occasional sponsored post in Firefox," explained Weiner. "It's only being tested in the US at the moment. In our minds we're always experimenting, and we want to keep experimenting until we feel confident about it."

If you want, you can turn off recommendations. Just click the 'New tab preferences' gear icon and uncheck 'Recommended by Pocket'. You can also opt out of sponsored articles via the same menu.

No clickbait

Pocket is very particular about what goes into sponsored recommendations, so you won't be seeing 'one old trick' articles appearing in your new tabs any time soon. At the moment all sponsored recommendations are articles, but there may be videos on the way too – though nothing that plays automatically

"All the content we show you goes through our quality guidelines," said Weiner. "The content has to provide value. It can't just be clickbait; it has to be useful."

There's no schedule for rolling out Sponsored Recommendations more widely yet, but Weiner says the response from Mozilla's test subjects has been very positive. If it works, it could be a solution to the problem of mishandling personal data that has caused Facebook so much pain this year.

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of TechRadar's sister site Advnture. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better)