As the battle of digital consumer privacy grows more complex and intense, most consumers are shrouded in a fog of war.
The Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit that operates the Firefox browser, aims to change that with Rally, a new browser extension designed to democratize internet research and expand consumer awareness of how data is collected and used by platforms and private companies.
The Rally extension, which Mozilla made widely available today after an alpha release in early May, allows users to opt into tracking for research projects around how people use the internet. That kind of research is typically difficult to execute because the platforms that control so much of the internet’s everyday user experience — Google, say, or Facebook, or Amazon — often refuse to share data with academics, nonprofits, or third parties.
Two of the first three projects Rally will be used for were developed in partnership with academic institutions; a third focused on the recently identified behavior known as doomscrolling, will be conducted in-house by Mozilla.
“These companies are building models of your behavior and using it to predict your next steps online and, increasingly, offline,” said Rebecca Weiss, Rally’s project lead. “If things are built on data, and data is only held by a few, this net loss is felt by society.”
The key details:
- At the moment, Rally is only being used by “several hundred” people, Weiss said, though the goal is to expand the panel considerably.
- Rally’s users’ data shares differ depending on the nature of the project they are participating in. Some projects only track browsing, while others track actions taken, such as whether a user shares a piece of content through social media. The data is also only shared with the organizations running that project.
- Though Mozilla is open to partnering with consumer-facing startups and organizations on projects that might make it clearer to people how their personal data is being used, it is not going to be used to sell consumer data, or in any commercial context at the outset.
- Rally is open to any internet user over the age of 19.
Historically, data-hoarding digital companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have made it difficult for academic researchers to access that data to study how people behave on the internet. Recently, a couple different companies have launched efforts to change that dynamic, many of them using browser extensions.
The Citizen Browser project, which nonprofit media company The Markup launched in late 2020, installed an extension on their browsers so Markup researchers could gather information about how various platforms behaved as they used them; Citizen Browser recently determined that Facebook is still recommending political groups to its users, something the platform vowed to stop doing after the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. capitol.
Separately, Invisibly, a startup that initially set out to overhaul the advertising experience on publishers’ sites, is now putting effort behind a more focused product designed around surveys.
But at the moment, lots of those efforts are small. The Citizen Browser Project, for example, has 1,200 people in it, a representative sample but much smaller than the hundreds of thousands of people that comprise some market research panels, or even the panels of some ad agencies; Omnicom Media Group unveiled a consumer panel with nearly 2 million people in it late last month. While Rally is available to many browsers, Firefox has about 7% of the global market share of desktop internet browsers, according to Statcounter.
Though Weiss declined to share a specific number of panelists she hoped Rally might amass, she said that building something large enough to rival a market research firm panel was among Mozilla’s goals.
Holding up a mirror
Rally’s success or usefulness will depend on the size of its panel. And to grow it, it will need to demonstrate real usefulness to the people that use it.
“Right now where we’re focused is on what does this community say we need,” Weiss said.
At the moment, Rally is meant to appeal to a kind of civic instinct in internet users. But as the studies and the collaborations with outside groups gets more sophisticated, Weiss hopes Rally will be able to share information back with users about how everybody else in the panel behaves, both as a kind of value exchange and also as a way of understanding the picture that some of the largest digital companies can and do draw from their consumers. “In this world, it’s the aggregations of this data that people use to draw inferences,” Weiss said. “You against an aggregate allows you to understand how much they know.”