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​Mozilla puts new money to use fighting for 'internet health'

After weaning itself from dependence on Google, the nonprofit plans to expand beyond the Firefox browser. That may clash with Trump administration priorities.

Mozilla revenue, chiefly from search-engine partners, continues to grow​. It reached $421 million in 2015.
Mozilla revenue, chiefly from search-engine partners, continues to grow. It reached $421 million in 2015.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

If you've heard of Mozilla, it's probably because you've used its Firefox browser. Now the nonprofit wants to expand out of technology into politics.

Mozilla is marshaling public support for political positions, like backing net neutrality, defending encryption and keeping government surveillance from getting out of hand, says Denelle Dixon-Thayer, Mozilla's chief legal and business officer.

The organization is funding the efforts with revenue from Firefox searches, which has jumped since 2014 when it switched from a global deal with Google to a set of regional deals. Mozilla brought in $421 million in revenue last year largely through partnerships with Yahoo in the US, Yandex in Russia and Baidu in China, according to tax documents released alongside Mozilla's 2015 annual report on Thursday.

Pushing policy work brings new challenges well beyond traditional Mozilla work competing against Google's Chrome browser and Microsoft's Internet Explorer. They include squaring off against the incoming administration of Donald Trump.

"We need to keep the web open and safe," Dixon-Thayer said. "The statements from President-elect Trump raise concerns about net neutrality and encryption."

The new priorities mean you're more likely to see Mozilla publicity stunts to promoting privacy and petitions to preserve Obama administration net neutrality efforts. "It's a shared responsibility," Dixon-Thayer said, meaning that Mozilla will try to inform the public and enlist their participation, not just lobby politicians.

Net neutrality, the idea that no data traffic on the internet should get priority over other data, is one top priority, and new "zero rating" efforts from AT&T, T-Mobile and others are its latest challenge. Mozilla has also advocated encryption as a means to protect privacy, including legal backing for Apple (PDF) in its fight against the FBI over iPhone encryption and backing the Let's Encrypt effort to ease website encryption.

Other policy priorities include decentralizing net control, so many have influence over its technology and content; reforming patent law so it doesn't hamper the open-source software that's come to dominate internet infrastructure; and pushing for European copyright reform so you can legally photograph the Eiffel Tower nighttime light show, for example. It's all part of a healthy internet, she said.

Mozilla revenue, chiefly from search-engine partners, continues to grow. It reached $421 million in 2015.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Of course, Mozilla will continue developing Firefox and encourage people to use it, especially on phones where it's a rarity today.

Mozilla, born from the pioneering but ultimately unsuccessful Netscape Navigator browser, cut its teeth competing against Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser a decade ago. IE dominated but was stagnant, while Firefox increased security and features, contributing to a web rennaisance. Now, Microsoft champions many of the same concepts.

Firefox has a vanishingly small presence on phones powered by Google's Android software or Apple's iOS. Firefox OS, a years-long effort to build phone software based on the web, fizzled.

Dixon-Thayer says Mozilla will pursue deals to get Firefox installed on mobile devices. Phones built by Chinese manufacturer Huawei and phones sold in Wal-Mart include Firefox, for example.

"That's huge for us," Dixon-Thayer said of the Huawei partnership. For carriers and phone makers, Firefox offers a way to loosen Google's technology grip, and she predicted more such deals in 2017.

Paying to attract new users is fine, but it's better for people to come on their own.

"It's incredibly important for us to grow organically, desktop and mobile," Dixon-Thayer said. "Those users tend to stick with you, and they tend to align in terms of values."

Attracting more users is critical to increasing leverage for the Mozilla mission. "We need to see growth to achieve larger constituency power," she said, whether through signing business deals or establishing new web technologies.