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Mozilla backtracks in eBay privacy flap

Open-source group updates German-language version of Firefox amid questions over how search tool handled private data.

The Mozilla Foundation has updated the German-language version of Firefox in a bid to defuse a growing controversy over the way its search toolbar handles private customer data.

Mozilla, an open-source group that oversees the development and marketing of the Firefox Web browser and other software, on Monday said it changed an eBay search plug-in that had originally directed queries through a Web address, or URL, owned by a third-party Swiss search company.

"The Mozilla Foundation allowed this URL to be implemented not realizing the privacy implications," the foundation said in a statement. "This was an error on our part. When this was brought to our attention, action was immediately taken."

The flap over the search redirect raises issues that are at the heart of Firefox's appeal. While the browser has won rave reviews and an enthusiastic following for its features and performance, it has benefited a great deal from the plethora of security and spyware scenarios that have plagued the browser market standard bearer, Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

"Many people download Firefox 1.0 just to get away from spy- and adware," wrote one person on the Mozillazine message board. "And the first thing they see when they use an official search plug-in is (an) ad-link. Especially for the 1.0 release this is just plain bad and should be changed ASAP."

In its statement, Mozilla said the purpose of the search redirect was "to measure the level of utilization. All the rumors about spyware are untrue and unfounded."

Mozilla stressed that eBay Germany had provided the link. eBay, reached Monday afternoon, said it could not comment until its European offices opened Tuesday morning.

Mozilla's update to the German Firefox didn't come soon enough to head off a firestorm of controversy in both German- and English-language message boards. The story was first reported by German technology site Heise.de.

Mozilla said it would automatically update previously installed versions of the German Firefox during the next three days.

Mozilla leaders previously have said they hoped to collect revenue from the search providers listed on the Firefox search tool, and acknowledged that paid search deals could raise some controversy for the nonprofit.

"We provide access to search services from a range of sources including Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay and others," Mozilla Foundation President Mitchell Baker wrote in a Nov. 8 blog posting. "We expect to see some funds come to the foundation as a result of our integrated search...When finances are involved questions often arise about their influence on an organization, and we'll spend some time talking about this as we go forward."

With respect to the German Firefox search plug-in, the foundation said no money had changed hands.

"We wanted to incorporate a search plug-in for eBay as we believe it would be useful to our users," according to the foundation's statement. "There was no revenue arrangement in place. We regret this error and thank the community for their patience and assistance in making this update."