An obscure but increasingly important browser privacy feature in Firefox is getting a big promotion.
Mozilla developers accepted an update to the Firefox Nightly test version on Wednesday that makes tracking protection easier to discover, easier to use and more nuanced. Tracking protection blocks website publishers and advertisers from running software that follows your online behavior -- something that's useful for targeting ads to specific people but that can invade privacy.
The feature previously was tucked away in a preferences submenu, but now it's accessible directly from the three-line "hamburger" menu in the upper right of the browser. And once it's enabled, Firefox lets you block tracking site by site instead using the previous all-or-nothing approach by clicking on an information icon on the left side of the address bar.
The tracking protection change is set to arrive in mainstream Firefox by the end of September.
Firefox will let you enable tracking protection directly from its options menu with a prominent switch.Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET
It's a new example of browsers getting more assertive on your behalf, even if that means ignoring the website programming code that developers want them to run. Firefox doesn't go as far as Brave, a rival browser from Firefox's former leader Brendan Eich, which blocks all trackers by default. Other examples of the assertiveness are Google Chrome's partial ad blocking and Safari's intelligent tracking protection with some selective blocking.
Once enabled, Firefox will let you turn tracking protection on or off for a particular website. It's also getting an option to clear cookies and other data stored by a particular site.Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET
All this cracking down makes life harder for web publishers trying to run a business. But in an era when ads slow down websites and suck up precious battery life, and when Facebook is under scrutiny for harvesting and sharing too much personal information, it's no surprise browsers are putting more of a priority on us.
Mozilla stopped short of saying it would enable tracking protection by default.
"Since some websites can function in unexpected ways with tracking protection enabled, in the short term -- 2018 -- we are focused on making the function more discoverable for our users," said Peter Dolanjski, Firefox product manager.
Mozilla, which counts online privacy as a top priority, is making a number of moves to improve privacy and to make it harder for websites to run roughshod over us. Another example already in Firefox Nightly is the ability to clear cookies and other data a specific site has stored on your device. Like the site-specific tracking protection, that option also is reachable with the information button -- the letter i in a circle -- on the left side of the address bar.
There are a number of changes coming to put websites in their place, all due to arrive in Firefox by the end of September:
- Some basic ad blocking.
- An option to block videos from automatically playing, something Google Chrome and Apple Safari already do.
- Technology to block ad retargeting, that sometimes creepy situation where you visit a website then shortly after see an ad for it on a different website, or see the same ad follow you around the web.
- A centralized privacy control panel so it's easier to set Firefox how you want it.
First published May 31, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 2:32 p.m. PT: Adds comment from Mozilla.
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