Rant: using Firefox is meaningless

Posted 2021-09-06

My rant today isn't exactly on topic for D, but it is a response I've been wanting to write for a while: using Firefox does nothing to address Google's power. Mozilla won't save the web.

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Adam's rant

I often see people argue that using the Firefox browser is some kind of moral imperative. It isn't necessarily a better product, they argue, but it still must be used as a counterweight to the Google Chrome monoculture. This is wrong on several levels.

First off, consumer choice informs production decisions, but do not actually change the balance of power. See, that's what the worries about monoculture, monopoly, etc., are really about: the balance of power. You don't want Google to have too much say. Good! Realizing this is important because it lets you step back and evaluate alternate approaches.

You might find my first sentence unbelievable: how can consumer choice not shift the balance of power? If absolutely nobody used Chrome, it would actually remove some of Google's power, but they still ultimately choose what they are going to do (just in the extreme case, a choice to go bankrupt obviously isn't appealing to any company, but Google's revenue isn't really tied to end users being on Chrome anyway). But regardless, zero users is not going to happen. Maybe Firefox could take 30% market share. Maybe 50%. Maybe even 70%. But there's no way they'll ever get to 100%, even if all the tech enthusiasts in the world did full-time missionary work. Just for sake of argument though, I'll pretend it did happen later in this essay.

Without a doubt, your individual choice makes no difference at all. Google couldn't care less what you use on your own. If you boycott all their products, it is meaningless to them. They have billions of other users and don't need you.

But most realistically, Firefox's hopes are somewhere in the middle. Maybe you with a lot of other users stay with Firefox. It currently has ~7% market share on the desktop. Perhaps it could get back up to 50%, that'd certainly be something, but would it really matter?

Suppose Google were to add a feature to Chrome and use it in the google search, Google docs, Google Classroom, and YouTube websites. What would Firefox realistically do? Sure they could protest... but Google is free to simply ignore them. The biggest protest is that all those Google products would be losing access to 50% of the market, and that can certainly be a significant loss... but really, given the balance of power, it is more accurate to say the Firefox users are losing access to the full experience in the Google web ecosystem. They'd be under pressure to either give in and switch to Chrome (bye bye Firefox marketshare) or to convince the Firefox developers to clone the feature. Either way, Google wins. Firefox didn't have any real power over Google.

Now, if the Firefox users all committed together to refuse to clone the feature and refuse to switch to Chrome, then maybe they could pressure Google to revert the breakage in their websites to chase after those users.... but still, Google could choose to stay the course and give up on those users. See who blinks first. Google has plenty of money and can afford to wait a while - 50% of users is still a significant revenue stream for them too. And besides, I mentioned Google Classroom specifically for a reason, they have other ways to push end users toward them like convincing their schools mandate it.

So bottom line here is even if Firefox could get an enormous marketshare, Google still doesn't need Firefox nor its users, which means they don't actually have any significant power.

I said I'd come back to the case of 100% marketshare. Indeed, most the points here still apply there, too, but another big one is that Mozilla actually kinda needs Google. It is fairly well known that the vast majority of Mozilla's revenue comes from... Google. And the majority of the minority that is left comes from other search engine deals. Whereas Google can live without Firefox, Firefox's parent company, Mozilla, cannot survive without Google. If that money were to be cut off, they'd be forced to downsize to 1/4 what they are now and would still likely be in major trouble if they managed to pull that off.

Follow the money. Google pulls Mozilla's strings. Even if 100% of users actually got on Firefox... they'd be going from Google to Google's puppet. No real power transfer has occurred.

OK, let's imagine they successfully diversified their revenue portfolio. Well, if their attempts thus far are any indication, that'd most likely come from the very same source as Google's strength: ad money. Either directly - they charge advertisers to add things to the browser (or perhaps selling exceptions to the built in ad-blocker), indirectly, via other search engine deals.... or even more indirectly. Mozilla tried to get in on the VPN seller market. But why do users want a VPN at all? Well, I'll grant there's a few reasons, but one of them is to try to *avoid* the ad trackers. Which means they may be disincentivized to change the world to improve that situation since it all comes back to the same source.

If you want to challenge Google's power or change the web, telling people to use another browser is wasting everyone's time. You need another approach. Maybe lobbying the government can actually accomplish something. But I'd like to stop seeing people berating other people for individual browser choices.