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Firefox might wipe out annoying website pop-ups

With a new generation of distractions flashing in our faces, one browser maker is considering ways to cut the clutter.

Mozilla headquarters in Mountain View, California, shows the takeoff of its overhauled Quantum version of the Firefox browser.

Mozilla headquarters in Mountain View, California, shows the takeoff of its overhauled Quantum version of the Firefox browser.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

One feature that drew millions of people to Firefox when the browser emerged more than a decade ago was pop-up blocking. Now its maker, Mozilla, is exploring a similar move against websites that use a different method to grab our attention.

Pop-ups in the old days launched separate browser windows, often with advertisements -- and when browsers blocked them, website programmers moved to "pop-unders" that opened a new window hidden underneath the ones you already had open. Browsers banished those, too.

Nowadays, there are plenty of pop-ups on websites, but they take a different form, embedded within the browser tab you're looking at. You've probably seen them exhorting you to subscribe to newsletters, take surveys and sign up for coupons. They can be pretty pushy at times, too.

So Mozilla has launched an experiment to identify and eventually eliminate the pop-ups. "Mozilla has a long history of protecting our users from invasive user experiences and tracking practices. We are experimenting with being able to identify and potentially block in-content pop-ups," said Nick Nguyen, vice president of Firefox. "At this point, this is an early-stage exploration."

It's not clear yet whether Mozilla will embrace the technology. But just the fact that they're evaluating it shows how browsers are getting more assertive on behalf of users. Other examples include Google's Chrome stripping ads off overly ad-heavy websites, Brave Software's Brave blocking ads and behavior tracking software and Apple's Safari using artificial intelligence software to bar privacy-intrusive trackers.

Website publishers rely on pop-ups, which is one reason Mozilla is proceeding cautiously.

"Enabling this feature would be based on our ability to catch a significant portion of these pop-ups, user reaction, and our understanding of any potential negative impact on user experience," Nguyen said.

David Legrand, an editor at French news site Nextinpact, fretted on Twitter that Mozilla's move could hamper communications with its readers. "We are very (very very) pro-privacy/user, but we use such a modal pop-up to inform users when their subscription is ended," he said.

Mozilla is gathering examples of the pop-ups but plans to develop technology that would identify them from website code, not from a specific list of examples, said Ehsan Akhgari, a Mozilla developer working on the project.

And he knows it's not a black-and-white issue in which blocking all such pop-ups is the obvious solution. "There are certainly legitimate use cases for these pop-ups," Akhgari said. "We don't know exactly how good we can get at differentiating between the 'useful' and 'annoying' kinds automatically."

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