Sharing But With Privacy In Mind: Mozilla Launches Social API For Firefox, Facebook Messenger First Service To Integrate For Beta Testing

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Interesting development today in the browser wars, with the latest battlefield being who is best positioned to guard users’ privacy. Mozilla today announced that it has started to test new social functionality inside its Firefox internet browser — a foray into sharing and social activity, it says, with user privacy in mind. The first service to join the Social API platform for testing is Facebook Messenger, although Mozilla says that more services are expected to be added soon in a service that it says will be “a big part of Firefox for years to come.”

Users who are interested in trying out the service need to upgrade to the latest Firefox Beta, and then visit Facebook “like you normally would.” There, Facebook will detect your browser and automatically offer you Messenger integration.

The main thing here is that Mozilla wants to let users control how they share information with others and on other services — but it also realizes that social media is an essential backbone to how people are using the internet today.

“Rather than being focused on a particular task, we use social sites throughout our day: we check back for updates, we chat with friends, we share. When we started to talk about integrating social into Firefox, that was our guiding principle: make it easy to stay connected; stop treating social like ‘just another tab,’” Johnathan Nightingale, senior director of engineering at Firefox, writes in a blog post.

Its Social API is a step to bridging those two areas together.

“User privacy is fundamental to Mozilla’s DNA; it’s not something we can sacrifice,” Tom Lowenthal, privacy and public policy for Mozilla, writes in a separate blog post. “Given that, we’ve set out to find a way to combine these two aspects and enable an experience that users can enjoy, safely.” It also follows on from Mozilla’s work on the “Do not track” option users have for browsing the wider internet.

The Social API, now in beta, will essentially integrate social features directly into the Firefox browser. It will appear as “a sidebar of social news and chat which stays put as you browse around the Web – no need to switch between or open a new tab.” Essentially, this is a development of the search window that Firefox puts into its browser that lets users opt for a number of different search engines to find things. (That’s in contrast to Chrome’s default to Google in its combined URL/search window.)

In the case of Facebook Messenger, users will be able to access Facebook’s chat service via the browser regardless of what site they are visiting. It looks like it will also mean that developers who create apps for Firefox should also be able to integrate this functionality. This is all the more important as a route to better competing against Chrome from Google.

This is the first time that a Facebook feature has been integrated with Mozilla’s Firefox.

Mozilla says that the new social features will be “completely opt-in” and disabled “until you visit a social network site and decide to turn things on.” Then, once you do turn on social services, they will work over secure connections that will use cookies, but get no “special treatment or additional data from Firefox.” Similarly Mozilla will also not get any information about a person’s social activities. In the case of Facebook, for example, using Messenger on Firefox will look just as if you are using it on Facebook itself. The idea here being that Mozilla is creating a service to keep you using Firefox, but not one that it will directly profit from through the use of your data or anything else.

What it will mean is that social networks like Facebook (and others who eventually sign on to the Social API) will be able to push notifications to users even when they are not on the social networks themselves. This universal access should make integrating into the Social API more attractive to those social networks as a way of encouraging more engagement, crucially at a time when they are not even on those networks.

And here’s an interesting twist: the Social API will also feature a “recommend” button that will disable tracking when you choose to recommend a site to your friends. This means that the social networks cannot track what web pages you have visited, and it also means that you can share pages even if sites do not have social sharing widgets installed. These are services that developers have been working on as plug-ins for Firefox and Chrome in the past (Facebook Disconnect being perhaps the most famous, with another called Open Graph Redirect, which disables required app installs to consume certain content.)

It is early days for the service, though, and it looks like the building blocks for more functionality: the “recommend” button currently only shares URLs, but in future it might also let users share pictures, titles, and Open Graph tags.