23 April 2015 - 11:11Whys and Hows of Suggested Tiles

As Darren discussed on Monday’s project call [wiki.mozilla.org], Suggested Tiles has been on track to go live to a larger audience next week for wider beta testing. I’ll provide some context around why we implemented this feature, details of how it works, and open questions of how to make it even better.

A suggestion made for people who visit Mozilla sites

A suggestion made for people who visit Mozilla sites

We’ve been looking for ways to improve the user experience within Firefox by combining data that Firefox knows about with data Mozilla can provide. We’re also in a good position to work with the advertising ecosystem so that we can change it to care more about the values Mozilla cares about. We want to create advertising products that respect user’s choice/control over their data and get others interested by showing money can be made.

Last November, we launched Tiles with a framework to show external content within Firefox’s new tab page. A relatively small portion of Firefox users saw these because they only showed up if there would have been empty tiles, i.e., new users with little history or existing users who cleared history. Suggested Tiles expands on this to be a little bit smarter by showing content based on the user’s top sites. For example, if a user tends to visit sites about mobile phones, Firefox can now decide to show a suggestion for Firefox for Android.

We intend to bring value to users by showing them content that they would be interested in and engage with. On the flip side, this means we purposefully hold back on showing content that users might get annoyed with and block. We do this in a way that requires using a minimal amount of the user’s data, and as usual, we provide controls to the user to turn things off if that’s desired. For the initial release of Suggested Tiles, we plan to show content from Mozilla such as mobile Firefox, MDN, and HTML5 gaming.

The Tiles framework has been built in ways that are different from traditional web advertising in both how it gets data into Firefox [blog.mozilla.org] and how it reports on Tiles performance. The two linked posts have quite a bit of detail, but to summarize, Firefox makes generic encrypted cookieless requests to get enough data to decide locally in Firefox whether content should be added to the new tab page. In order for us to have data on how to improve the experience, Firefox reports back when users see and click on these tiles and includes tile data such as IDs of added content but no URLs. We have aggressive data deletion policies and don’t keep any unique identifiers that can be associated with our users.

The technical changes to support Suggested Tiles are not overly complex as the server provides one additional value specifying when a suggestion should be shown. This value informs Firefox which sites need to be in the user’s top sites before showing the tile. The reporting mechanism is unchanged, so if a Suggested Tile is shown or clicked, Firefox reports back the tile’s ID and no URLs just as before.

Even though the technical changes are not too complicated, the effect of this can be significant. In particular, Firefox reports back if it shows a Suggested Tile, and if that tile is only shown when the user has been to one of various news sites, Firefox reveals to our servers that this user reads news. Our handling of the data is no different from before.

Because we care about user privacy, we have policies around how/what suggestions can be made. For example, to match on news sites, we make sure there’s at least 5 popular news sites for Firefox to check against. This makes it so there’s user deniability of which site the user actually visited. We also focus on broad uncontroversial topics, so we don’t make suggestions based on adult content or illegal gambling sites.

An additional layer of protection is built into Firefox by only allowing predefined sets of sites [hg.mozilla.org] for making suggestions. These include mobile phones, technology news, web development, and video games. This rigidness protects Firefox from accepting fake/malicious suggestions that could reveal data Mozilla doesn’t want to collect.

This last point is important to highlight because we want to have a discussion around how we can be more flexible in showing more relevant content and fixing mistakes. For example, people who care about video games might only care about a specific gaming platform, but because Firefox only allows for the predefined sites, we would end up suggesting content that many users didn’t actually want to see.

Feel free to respond with comments about Suggested Tiles or to join in on the discussion about various topics on dev.planning [groups.google.com]:

As usual, we have the source code available for Firefox [hg.mozilla.org] and our servers that send/receive tiles data [github.com], create tiles, and process tiles data. You can also find additional details in the Directory Links Architecture and Data Formats documentation [people.mozilla.org].

No Comments | Tags: Content Services, Development, Mozilla

23 April 2014 - 8:00Mr. AwesomeBar Runs for Congress

tl;dr The non-profit Mozilla changed the Internet by giving users choice and liberty. I, Ed Lee, want to build on that foundation to change how politics works in 2 ways: 1) get rid of politicians who focus on money and forget about voters and 2) change how politics is won by showing you can win without spammy advertisements that track tons of data about people. The Internet helped Mozilla take on “unbeatable” opponents, and I need your help to do the same.

I became a Mozillian 10 years ago. I found my passion helping people through Mozilla, a non-profit that promotes user choice and liberty on the Internet. These values attracted me to Mozilla in the first place, and I believe in these values even more after being employed at Mozilla for five years. I want to bring these values to politics because while the Internet can be a big part of our lives, politics tend to control the rest and can destroy the things/people we care about most.

During the SOPA protests, SopaTrack showed not only which Representatives were co-sponsors for the bill but also how often they voted with whichever side gave the most money. I was quite appalled to find out that Mark Amodei co-sponsored a bill that would take away our freedoms and earned a perfect 100% record of voting with the money [itworld.com].

The behavior of this “Representative” is the complete opposite of the values that brought me to Mozilla, and I believe the correct solution is to vote out these politicians. That’s why I’m running against him as a US Congress candidate in Nevada on a platform of “Non Profit” and “For Liberty” to directly contrast with this incumbent.

Amodei votes 100% with money, SOPA co-sponsor vs. Ed Lee

Amodei votes 100% with money, SOPA co-sponsor vs. Ed Lee

I’ve talked to various people involved in politics, and I’ve been ignored, laughed at, told to go away and stop wasting my time. The most interesting dismissal: “the Internet can’t help,” and I thought to myself, “Challenge Accepted.” I hope the rest of the Internet is as outraged as I was to hear that the best action is to do nothing and give a free pass to this incumbent who just votes with the money to destroy our liberties.

Mozilla was in a similar situation when Firefox had to take on the dominant web browser. The Internet cared about the browser that focuses on the user (e.g., would you like to see that popup?). People helped spread Firefox even without understanding the non-profit that created it because the built in values of freedom and choice resonated with users.

My ask of you is to think of aunts/uncles/friends/relatives in Reno/Sparks/Carson City and see if they’re on this anonymized list of names [edlee2014.com]. If so, please text or call that person and simply say “please look into Ed Lee,” and if you let me know, I’ll personally follow up with your contact. If you don’t find anyone on the list, please share it with others whom you think might know someone living in the northern half of Nevada. Early voting starts in a month with the primary less than 2 months away on June 10th, so let’s move fast!

I’m aiming for at least a third of the midterm primary votes in a 4-way race, and that roughly comes out to just over 9000. (Really!) The anonymized list of names are of people most likely to vote in my district’s Democratic primary, and the plan is to have the millions on the Internet find a connection to those several thousands to make a personal request. This is as opposed to traditional political advertising where large amounts of money is raised to track down and spam people where I estimate more than 95% of people won’t even be moved to vote or vote differently. With my Mozilla background, that’s not how I would want to approach campaigning.

If this technique works for the primary, it could work for the general election by focusing on non-partisan voters. We can further develop this technique to vote out all the money-seeking politicians and replace them with people who care about individuals and freedoms across the US, and dare I say, across the world.

The Internet helped Mozilla change the world with its non-profit mission and strong core values. I need your help to do the same in the world of politics.

Ed Lee (Ed “Mr. AwesomeBar” Lee is a bit long for the ballot)

Paid for by Ed Lee for Congress
Yay for free speech, but apparently not free-as-in-beer if not correctly attributed.

6 Comments | Tags: AwesomeBar, Mozilla, Politics

4 April 2014 - 8:51Why I’m a Mozillian

I became a Mozillian 10 years ago when I started participating in Bugzilla and helping with the Spread Firefox campaign, earning both the 25 million and 50 million-downloads coins. I was just a freshman at the University of Illinois studying Computer Science, but I was eager to help the non-profit Mozilla create a web browser that promotes user choice for liberty.

SF Mozilla Monument

San Francisco Mozilla Monument

Mozilla’s founders created the mission for openness, innovation and opportunity on the Internet; and because of that, I was able to find my passion of helping people. In between lectures, I hacked on open source Firefox to create the AwesomeBar through many iterations of conversing with individuals to learn about their specific needs. I collaborated with other Mozillians to come up with ideas and to implement them into this Firefox feature which still provides better and faster choices for everyone.

Yesterday, I cried when I learned that one of Mozilla’s co-founders was leaving [brendaneich.com]. It was the most I’ve cried since my mother passed away, and in some sense it was appropriate as Brendan is a “founding father” of the organization I’ve dedicated over a third of my life to.

Even as Brendan announced his departure, he provided next steps to advancing the mission by reaffirming Mozilla’s focus on users. The direction he provided could put the non-profit Mozilla as a users union leader to push back the bullying aspects of the Internet that prey on individuals (think of privacy policies or terms of services) and instead flip that around to be pro-user [blog.mozilla.org].

I’m a Mozillian because the founders made Mozilla with the mission. I believed in the mission when I became a Mozillian, and I still believe in it now — especially with this golden opportunity for Mozilla to fight for users. I hope all Mozillians can continue to collaborate together to make the world a better place for everyone.

Ed Lee
Love Mozilla

2 Comments | Tags: AwesomeBar, Mozilla, UIUC, User Data

28 March 2013 - 6:57No self for new fancy => arrow functions!

Thanks Paul for letting people know how to define JavaScript functions, the ES6 way (in Firefox 22). I’m now busy converting my anonymous functions, e.g., function(x) x*x, to the new syntax: x => x*x.

But one thing caught my eye in the spec he linked, harmony:arrow_function_syntax:

// ''=>'' has only lexical ''this'', no dynamic ''this''

This means you no longer need to bind or do the self = this dance. Both patterns are common for setting up callbacks in JavaScript.

So if your code in a method of an object used to look like either of..

addEventListener(.., function(event) {
  .. this.value ..;
}.bind(this));

or

let self = this;
addEventListener(.., function(event) {
  .. self.value ..;
});

Your code can now look like this!

addEventListener(.., event => {
  .. this.value ..;
});

Exciting stuff! :)

5 Comments | Tags: Development, Mozilla