Content, Ads, Caution

February 13th, 2014

I’m starting with content but please rest assured I’ll get to the topic of ads and revenue.

In the early days of Firefox we were very careful not to offer content to our users.  Firefox came out of a world in which both Netscape/AOL (the alma mater of many early Mozillians) and Microsoft had valued their content and revenue sources over the user experience.  Those of us from Netscape/AOL had seen features, bookmarks, tabs, and other irritants added to the product to generate revenue.   We’d seen Mozilla code subsequently “enhanced” with these features.

And so we have a very strong, very negative reaction to any activities that even remotely remind us of this approach to product.  That’s good.

This reaction somehow became synonymous with other approaches that are not necessarily so helpful.  For a number of  years we refused to have any relationship with our users beyond we provide software and they use it.  We resisted offering content unless it came directly from an explicit user action.  This made sense at first when the web was so young.  But over the years many people have come to expect and want their software to do things on their behalf, to take note of what one has done before and do something useful with it.

In the last few years we’ve begun to respond to this.  We’re careful about it because the DNA is based on products serving users.  Every time we offer something to our users we question ourselves rigorously about the motivations for that offer.  Are we sure it’s the most value we can provide to our users? Are we sure, doubly-sure, we’re not fooling ourselves?  Sometimes my commercial colleagues laugh at me for the amount of real estate we leave unmonitored or the revenue opportunities we decline.

So we look at the Tiles and wonder if we can do more for people.    We think we can.  I’ve heard some people say they still don’t want any content offered.  They want their experience to be new, to be the same as it was the day they installed the browser, the same as anyone else might experience.  I understand this view, and think it’s not the default most people are choosing.  We think we can offer people useful content in the Tiles.

When we have ideas about how content might be useful to people, we look at whether there is a revenue possibility, and if that would annoy people or bring something potentially useful.  Ads in search turn out to be useful.  The gist  of the Tiles idea is that we would include something like 9 Tiles on a page, and that 2 or 3 of them would be sponsored — aka “ads.”  So to explicitly address the question of whether sponsored tiles (aka “ads”) could be included as part of a content offering, the answer is yes.

These sponsored results/ ads would not have tracking features.

Why would we include any sponsored results?  If the Tiles are useful to people then we’ll generate value.  That generates revenue that supports the Mozilla project.   So to explicitly address the question of whether we care about generating revenue and sustaining Mozilla’s work, the answer is yes.  In fact, many of us feel responsible to do exactly this.

Pretty much anytime we talk about revenue at Mozilla people get suspicious.  Mozillians get suspicious, and our supporters get suspicious.  There’s some value in that, as it reinforces our commitment to user experience and providing value to our users.  There’s some drawbacks to this as well, however.  I’ll be talking with Mozillians tomorrow and in the coming days on these topics in more detail.

101 comments for “Content, Ads, Caution”

  1. 1

    Josh Triplett said on February 13th, 2014 at 1:11 am:

    (Mirror of a comment also posted to LWN.)

    I would suggest waiting to panic until we find out who the “hand-picked partners” are. Remember that Mozilla gets paid a huge amount of money to keep Google as the default search engine, and odds are if you asked most users, most of them who cared would say that’s what they want anyway. If the content filled in includes things like an appropriate regional Wikipedia, a few Mozilla sites similar to the default bookmarks, and a few popular sites that users want anyway who turn out to be willing to pay (e.g. Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, or Amazon), that doesn’t seem problematic.

    I think the key question is “does this show users content that they find unwanted, or does this actually give users something better than a blank page?”.

  2. 2

    Pingback from Revenue Diversification the Mozilla Way | The Mozilla Blog

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  3. 3

    njn said on February 13th, 2014 at 1:54 am:

    The lack of details is a problem. AFAICT there are no patches written, and no detailed descriptions of how exactly this would work. (You saying “These sponsored results/ ads would not have tracking features” is a step in the right direction.)

    If this feature can be disabled easily, that would also help a lot — i.e. “we think you might be interested in this, but we’re not forcing it down your throat if you don’t want it”.

  4. 4

    Julien said on February 13th, 2014 at 2:44 am:

    What I don’t understand is the reason for this decision: does Mozilla need to make money?
    If so, why not offer a single optional freemium feature? Add value to your product and collect some of this value. Maybe that could be an improved version of sync, or a better “historical search”, or….?

  5. 5

    stef said on February 13th, 2014 at 2:46 am:

    instead of ads, how about reacting to the US/CAN/UK/NZ/etc spying actively on everyone? We need a more robust browser, that does proper compartmentalization of the processes, that does not scare away the users from https sites that actually do not succumb to the compromised CA system. Firefox is a piece of critical infrastructure, and you let it degrade and become a tool of the adversaries. Please stop this, and become a champion of the free internet again.

    sincerly, a long-time firefox user.

  6. 6

    Stomme poes said on February 13th, 2014 at 3:04 am:

    If it can be turned off, and is something offered maybe by default to new users/new installs, the annoyance level would go way down. People who find Stuff in Tiles useful wouldn’t turn it off.

  7. 7

    Dan Tobias said on February 13th, 2014 at 6:18 am:

    You’re perhaps entering onto a slippery slope where eventually “monetization” will be the primary goal in deciding elements of the browser’s design rather than user experience. Already there are rumors floating around about such extreme future actions as getting rid of the ability to have 3rd-party add-ons due to their potential to disrupt Mozilla’s revenue stream somehow.

  8. 8

    Sven Slootweg said on February 13th, 2014 at 6:38 am:

    Here’s the problem.

    For the past $many years, marketing departments of all sorts have developed one core goal: convincing people that they are necessary. The underlying message in this endeavour has been that “you are a consumer and not a person, you should have everything handed to you on a platter, and having to think or research for yourself is a bad thing, so just leave that to us”. The result of this is that people have become lazier and more demanding than ever before, and their demands are usually taught, not motivated.

    When you say the following:

    “But over the years many people have come to expect and want their software to do things on their behalf, to take note of what one has done before and do something useful with it.”

    … the phenomenon you are describing is a direct manifestation of what I just described. People expect “brands” to “deliver value” to them, and to “help them find interesting content” (which is really just a bunch of euphemisms, for the highest bidder telling them what to think or buy).

    By giving in to these (unmotivated, taught) demands, you are effectively giving in to “keeping people dumb”, to say it directly. This does not benefit an open internet (or society), which Mozilla claims as one of its ideals. Neutrality of those developing the “window into the internet”, is absolutely a requirement for such an open internet.

    User experience is important, but not if it’s at the cost of open-ness, privacy, or any of the other ideals that Mozilla (supposedly) has. If “user experience trumps all”, Mozilla is quickly on its way to becoming no better than Google.

    I think Mozilla needs to have a long hard think about what its true mission is; following their ideals to build a healthier and open internet (and society), or giving in to the short-term and often irrational and taught demands of their users.

  9. 9

    A Mozillian said on February 13th, 2014 at 7:39 am:

    For what it’s worth, I’m a long time Firefox user, and I owe a lot of who I am today personally and professionally to the way Mozilla operates. I follow many Mozilla employees via social media and RSS, and consider them coworkers and colleagues in spirit.

    I love a lot of what Mozilla has done for the web, especially in being a driving force for honoring net neutrality, web standards and preventing the fragmentation of the web, as well as educational outreach, and the core understanding that an unbiased portal to the internet, a modern necessity for living daily life.

    I understand and appreciate that there is a desire to diversify Mozilla’s income to enable the organization to continue to operate and flourish. Directory Tiles in of themselves isn’t the issue to me, rather the way in which they were brought about: If Mozilla is to be dabbling in advertising and alternate forms of revenue, I feel that the best way to go about it is not to surface incredibly vague language tucked away on a newly-created blog from newly-created department from a newly-created position from someone plucked from an industry a lot of loyal diehard users are incredibly skeptical of.

    People trust Mozilla to be open, transparent, and to put the user first, and, judging by the explosion of overhyped news posts from various tech sites yesterday and today, I don’t think I’m alone in this belief. I think an organizational shift of this kind should be coming loud and clear from the top—to be honest, I view this blog post to kind of be a symptom of that miscalculation.

    I find the way Darren Herman to be shockingly amateurish in his approach to all of this, especially considering his title and purported experience. A little light reading on his internet presence isn’t very reassuring, either. There is isn’t really any language about even paying the lightest of lip service to Mozilla’s principles, much less any real insight on the way he conducts business. Hopefully he’ll do better with future efforts.

  10. 10

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  11. 11

    Mitchell Baker said on February 13th, 2014 at 8:06 am:

    Njn — you’re right. Details are important and we would have done much better if we had gotten our steps ordered differently and discussed and vetted the details first. Hoping to rectify that asap. (well, not the order of course, that’s done , but getting details in discussion asap)/

    Julien: yes. building an entire mobile ecosystem is extremely expensive. Offering services is expensive. If we don’t do these things then we will not be able to offer people the tools for modern life. Other models could work too. Note that if we offer fremium services we might want to tell people about them, and maybe that would seem like advertising too …… lots of details involved in making any approach work.

  12. 12

    Mitchell Baker said on February 13th, 2014 at 8:13 am:

    Stef: working on all those things too.

    Dan: we recognize the slippery slope issue. We came out of that setting, where the product we built at Netscape was deeply damaged for this.

    Sven: this is a complicated and important topic. How much do we build the thing that we want, and how much do we want a general consumer product that the market adopts enough to help us push the industry toward a better place? By optimizing for the former some of us are much happier. By optimizing for the latter we have a less-perfect product, but the ability to push the industry. You are right that the latter is a part of how we are operating. I think it’s key. It does mean the market -ie consumers– pull us towards what they want to live online. And we’re taking steps to pull that desire towards the openness of our idealized world.

    A great topic. We may be in different places on the spectrum. A good topic to continue somewhere in a better forum that comments.

  13. 13

    Mitchell Baker said on February 13th, 2014 at 8:23 am:

    dear Mozillian of Comment 10.

    You are right that we handled this backwards. I’m working to sort this out too.

    Chris mister: first,please remember there’s a person at the other end of your words. I know him, he’s trying hard. On the substance of your comment, yes his language is different from Mozilla’s standard. That’s true everytime we bring something new into mozilla. We’re trying to learn to speak to many parts of society. So i think the problem is as Mozillian of comment 10 said — we didn’t have a discussion with mozilla participants and supporters in our own language first, we didn’t get the concerns raised, the kinks worked out, etc. If we had done that then the language that makes sense in the advertising world would be a useful addition, not a communication that didn’t make sense.

  14. 14

    VanillaMozilla said on February 13th, 2014 at 8:39 am:

    There is only one way that you can do this without engendering deep hostility and suspicion from people who have been your greatest supporters.

    You absolutely MUST ask the user first, before displaying any “content”. You must inform people exactly what you are doing, and you must honor their wishes. You must tell them that there will be no tracking, and you absolutely must ensure that that is the case. The explanation must be clear, and simple. Two sentences maximum, and not part of a “Terms and conditions” statement. It must not be opt-out. If you’re honest and straightforward, you will retain users’ trust, and many of them will opt in. If you don’t do that, you will surely lose their trust.

  15. 15

    Mike Taylor said on February 13th, 2014 at 9:23 am:

    So this is something Opera has been doing for years with its Speed Dial. New installation? You’ve got a few sponsored speed dial slots that lead to places (Amazon, Facebook, that some people consider useful. Personally I’m the type of guy to delete those immediately (and set my new tab page to about:blank), but I’ve noticed other people in my family using them on their own machines. So there is at least the possibility for some notion of value for the user based on my sample of like 3 people.

    Revenue for the Mozilla project is a good thing™. I’m also glad to hear that we’ll work on language and framing of these types of things going forward–another good thing.

  16. 16

    Fabricio Zuardi said on February 13th, 2014 at 9:44 am:

    In order to be an independent force, I understand that Mozilla needs money.

    In order to have money, Mozilla **will** chose less-than-great partners (Bing is now listed as a search option on Firefox– and I hope we’ve got a nice deal and a pretty big amount of money for that– while Duck Duck Go is still not).

    By choosing less-than-great partners, Mozilla becomes more relying on them (as we have been on Google) and more biased towards their views. Partner’s money makes us lie to ourselves and justify that some feature, content, ad or restriction (patent-encumbered formats, DRM, locked phones, etc) provides value to the users (as they certainly do, but at which cost?).

    Might even makes us forget that with free software a user is not just a consumer, but an empowered being that has total control and can improve the product without having to answer to some entity. When/if the “user” loses her ability to tweak the product, make changes to scratch her own itch that’s when having or not money will no longer make any difference, Mozilla would be just another company making pretty products.

    In other words: implement sponsored tiles, Up, whatever… but make it easy to remove them in the UI or at least in the code.

    I hope we proceed with caution, experimenting with different revenue models is fine, bringing in people from different and corporate backgrounds is fine, but we also need to stand firmly on the core principles and use the influence that being a big player with money to burn(even if not totally independent) provides us. The goal must always be more freedom (phones with root access and unlocked bootloaders, free-hardware, no binary blobs, access to all sources, transparency, more autonomy, less walled gardens in the cloud, more privacy, less patents, a healthier public domain), not less 🙂

    If there is a reason to seek money it should be because we have a good use for it, with society and individual freedoms in mind, not simply to survive, maintain the actual company’s departments, offices and structures as is or to grow the company. Shrinking is always an option.

  17. 17

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  18. 18

    James said on February 13th, 2014 at 10:00 am:

    After the AOL fracas you mention, one of the ways Mozilla was responded was with the module owner system as a bulwark against the parent company imposing its will. This should be a comfort, but it doesn’t feel like one to me in this case. That’s because the Firefox module is overwhelmingly MoCo: I think there’s only one person in the peer list who isn’t an employee or contractor (and he hasn’t commented in bugzilla in 6 months, so I think that the wiki just hasn’t been updated). That doesn’t give me as much comfort as the Gecko modules, which are also mostly MoCo but have more folks with longer tenures.

    I know that it’s the same problem as always – people who are paid to do work are likely going to do it well and thus get peer status, while those who aren’t won’t have as much time – but it’s an important change to think about when comparing to the Aol era. It would be great to be able to say “Marketing people can come up with whatever idea they’d like, but it has to pass code review like everything else,” but I’m not at all sure that that’s enough.

  19. 19

    Benjamin Kerensa said on February 13th, 2014 at 10:04 am:

    I think there has been more than just suspicion but in some cases outrage over the idea and I think its totally unnecessary. I think the fact that Mozilla has championed privacy and served its users so well for so many years that our supporters and critics should give us the benefit of the doubt.

    I know that this feature will go through our processes (Development, Engineering, QA, Release Management) and get the oversight and quality it needs before it reaches our users and that’s all I care about.

  20. 20

    Omega said on February 13th, 2014 at 10:38 am:


    Trust is hard to gain but easy to lose. WE live in an age where any and every organization will gather your data and sell it to the highest bidder and the government. To have an organization champion user choice and privacy to suddenly take the choice and privacy out of the equation is damaging. Especially when a corporate mouthpiece presents it in a boilerplate corporate press announcement.

  21. 21

    mof said on February 13th, 2014 at 10:42 am:

    Unsolicited content pushed to user != questions about revenue. Also not a tracking issue.
    And yes, unsolicited content pushed to users means advertisement. Nobody likes that.

    Claiming that Mozilla can somehow be able to push for content that will add value to people, when it’s going to be paid stuff, seems like saying we can make ponies fly.

    What’s value to me? Content that I choose to see. That I choose to see. Me.

  22. 22

    A Mozillian said on February 13th, 2014 at 10:47 am:

    Just wanted to say thanks for hearing me out, Mitchell. You’re probably a very busy man at what sounds like a pretty hectic time in the organization, but taking the time to patiently address individual comments is really reassuring and exactly the kind of thing I’d want in a situation like this.

  23. 23

    Sam Tobin-Hochstadt said on February 13th, 2014 at 10:58 am:

    A Mozillian: in addition to having a rock-star hair style and a cool web browser, Mitchell is also a woman.

  24. 24

    Sven Slootweg said on February 13th, 2014 at 11:31 am:

    Mitchell, I understand your reasoning – however, I feel it’s critical to make a stand against certain kinds of demands from users in order to maintain that openness. This would be one of those demands.

    I’d love to continue this discussion in a more suitable venue, do you have any particular suggestions?

  25. 25

    kc said on February 13th, 2014 at 12:32 pm:

    What determines what ‘ad’ tiles are displayed?
    I’m not adverse to the idea – just want control over what’s displayed.
    For instance if you are interested in belgian beer – the tile could refresh occasionally with a new suggestion every few hours. Especially local/online offers.

  26. 26

    Mitchell Baker said on February 13th, 2014 at 1:26 pm:

    mof: here’s a question: do you find search suggestions to be content pushed at you? does the answer differ if the suggestions are from your browser based on only your activities, or from Google based on activities of many … Does it matter if you have control over it?

  27. 27

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  28. 28

    Paul Morris said on February 13th, 2014 at 3:16 pm:

    +1 for comment #16 by VanillaMozilla.

  29. 29

    Bob Moss said on February 13th, 2014 at 3:19 pm:

    Whichever way you swing it you’re putting ads in your browser, and how exactly do you plan to ascertain ‘relevance’ of ad tiles without some form of tracking?

    Firefox is held up as a great example of open source software and a force for good in the world that encourages open standards across the web and puts the user first – if this browser includes ads, what makes Firefox any better than any other ‘freemium’ application and what kind of example are you setting for others? Open source applications don’t lack advertising due to lack of imagination – it’s deeply unpopular, ruins the user experience & can be bypassed anyway through forking the original source.

    If you want to make money, there are alternatives. Open source projects either drive for more donations (i.e. Wikipedia) or they build & sell optional supporting services around their product.

    How about offering an optional secure cloud-services for a subscription as a great way of rewarding loyalty and enhance your mobile OS? or perhaps branching out into enterprise consultancy/support for developing intranet web apps? I’m sure if Mozilla can create (in my opinion) the best browser in the world they can come up with better ideas that don’t compromise their own principles for few extra pennies in the bank.

  30. 30

    Ivan Ičin said on February 13th, 2014 at 3:25 pm:

    As most people noted, this is a delicate issue that requires details.

    Generally speaking, non-targeting actually may lead to more annoying ads. I can think only of several mega sites like Facebook or Twitter or Gmail or Outlook that many people can think of as useful. If that is the case that those sites would be included, which I guess, it sounds reasonable. It might even give some edge over Chrome, as Google won’t ever include competing services (and surely you can consider links to its services as ads), though some are actually necessary for the most people.

  31. 31

    Rickkins said on February 13th, 2014 at 4:37 pm:

    First australis, and now this. Sad, but this group has truly lost it’s way.

  32. 32

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  34. 34

    Charles Perry said on February 14th, 2014 at 10:12 am:

    Mitchell, you have the patience of a thousand suns. I can’t think of anything more important for Mozilla’s future than giving users the experience then want & need while keeping their trust and staying solvent. We’re on our way.

  35. 35

    David said on February 14th, 2014 at 11:04 am:

    From the Wall Street Journal story (

    “Mozilla said the slots could feature content promoted by a company, such as “a news story about women who code in Syria.” But it declined to say what other types of ads might, or might not, appear. It said the ads could begin in the second quarter.”

    Presumably the WSJ has a legitimate source in Mozilla to get such quotes from. However the above is directly counter to a number of the statements made here about the nature of the ads that are going to be presented to users. A news story would indicate some sort of dynamic external source, not a fixed, baked-in list of tiles. It also implies, depending on where such news is sourced, direct behavior tracking that can be analyzed based on what things the browser has decided the user is interested in.

    From the Advertising Age article (, quoting Darren Herman at the IAB conference:

    “Mozilla hasn’t made a final decision on how to treat third-party tracking technologies, but Mr. Herman said it is investigating solutions such as unique identifiers from Apple and Google as well as other third parties.”

    vs Mitchell Baker’s statement (

    “These sponsored results/ads would not have tracking features.”

    Putting out two directly contradictory statements (depending on what they think their audience wants to hear?).

    (Aside: Mitchell Baker at least acknowledges that these are indeed ads, vs the weaselly semantics-dodging of Benjamin Kerensa.)

    And (back to the AA article):

    “The revenue opportunity is significant, as Mozilla sees 100 billion tile impressions in the U.S. alone each year, according to a company spokesperson. But the program is likely to start slow, as it will only reach first time users — only 31 million uniques per month, according to Mozilla principal, strategy Chris Tacy.”

    Implying that this will grow beyond merely first-time users. The AA article also notes who they are quoting (though the sentence is poorly formed at the end, and I’m not sure if Chris Tacy was the source of both figures) vs the anonymous WSJ quote.

    And David Rajchenbach-Teller ( says:

    “Not only this, but in several of the variants we discussed, sponsored
    tiles would eventually disappear in favor of websites actually visited
    by the user. ”

    So, not in all variants, meaning that in at least some of the variants, sponsored tiles would -not- disappear. Even in the variants where they do, ‘eventually’ isn’t defined here.

    Combined with the Advertising Age article’s indication that this program will “start slow”, and thus at some point encompass more than first-time users, that would seem to strongly imply an intent to eventually force these on most/all users, (necessarily) overriding at least part of their own specific tile entries.

    So, how much of the above is the truth, and how much is “misinformation”? A single statement (or poorly worded blog post) might be swept away as things are better understood, but these are statements from multiple people on multiple aspects of the issue, almost all of which are pointing in the same direction.

    As an aside, due to today’s followup article on ZDNet (which is basically just a re-composing of Mitchell’s blog post and several comments): One might also speculate some on the extent to which the “extremely expensive” (per Mitchell) Firefox OS’s resource consumption is pulling in not only programmer resources, but also budgetary resources from the desktop side, and to what degree there is any real expectation of some future benefit from this investment vs how much this is just a budgetary sinkhole that’s dragging the rest of Mozilla down with it.

    Such speculation would seem completely without basis (and not something I’d given any consideration to before the ZDNet reference; my only view of Firefox OS is the annoyance that the only times I ever hear about it are when yet another programmer is pulled from working on Firefox/Gecko to instead be put on the Firefox OS project), however it is now directly linked to the current discussion due to Mitchell’s statement. She did not mention “financial independence” (as David Rajchenbach-Teller mentioned in the .governance thread), but spoke only about expensive current projects.

  36. 36

    Andrew Whitfield said on February 14th, 2014 at 11:09 am:


    I think there a number of other ways you can do what you’re looking to do. Where could I send a proposal for how to tackle the issues of transparency, privacy, relevant content, opt-in features and an advertising model that doesn’t dumb people down or take you away from your mission statement but does offer a way to empower the Firefox users above and beyond the other browser users by virtue of that advertising model.

    I’d like to discuss how to make Firefox a better tool for outreach and education, empowerment and privacy. With whom could I connect to discuss some thoughts?

    Long time Firefox advocate,

  37. 37

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  41. 41

    Tobias Markus said on February 14th, 2014 at 12:23 pm:

    My main problem with this is that we’re actively invading users freedom to choose their own favorite sites by displaying picks. That’s not “the user comes first” to me. That’s “we prefer money over users”. If I were to tell you “Here, this is what you will find useful”, you’d somewhat be offended, wouldn’t you? From a cultural standpoint, this is a fiasco. It’s even different from search providers because search providers offer similar functionality and features.

    Welcome to your Yahoo! Freedom (R), maybe you’d like some Google fries or a KFC club soda with that?

  42. 42

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  45. 45

    Frew said on February 14th, 2014 at 2:04 pm:

    My concern is whether I will be able to turn it off. If I can stop the ads I will fix it the first time they appear and go back to using Firefox how I always have. If I can’t get rid of them it is a different matter, it will damage my opinion of Firefox fundamentally.

    I can’t stand advertising. If it is being pushed at me I will change behaviour (and possibly browser) to avoid it.

  46. 46

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  47. 47

    Gary said on February 14th, 2014 at 4:58 pm:

    Do whatever you want. But if you add this “feature” you’ll be losing at least the four users in my household. I suspect you’ll be losing quite a few others as well.

  48. 48

    Pingback from La publicidad de Firefox no rastreará a los usuarios

    […] que refuerza nuestro compromiso con la experiencia de uso y el ofrecer valor a nuestros usuarios», sentencia Mitchell Baker, quien promete dar aún más detalles al respecto en las próximas […]

  49. 49

    tforge88 said on February 15th, 2014 at 3:20 am:

    Hell no. If you do this it will be the absolute death of Mozilla as any kind of respectable organisation.

  50. 50

    fotonix said on February 15th, 2014 at 5:10 am:

    So, I will stop working with Firefox Browser.

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