Firefox Extension Kerfuffle Raises Question: How Much Freedom is Too Much?

by Ostatic Staff - May. 04, 2009

If you're a Firefox user and you use several of the many useful extensions available for the browser, you've probably run into the thorny problem of one extension disabling or altering the functionality of another one. This can be quite annoying. For example, AdBlockPlus is extremely popular as an extension for blocking pop-up ads and banners, but (sometimes unintentionally) there are quite a few Firefox extensions that disrupt it, drawing regular complaints from people trying new extensions, or upgrading existing ones. Mozilla is now proposing a set of policies to police this problem, prompted by a recent catfight between extension developers. The proposed policy changes raise questions about just how much freedom extension developers should enjoy.

In a post titled "No Surprises" from the Mozilla Add-ons blog, the following policies are proposed for new and upgraded Firefox extensions:

"Changes to default home page and search preferences, as well as settings of other installed add-ons, must be related to the core functionality of the add-on. If this relation can be established, you must adhere to the following requirements when making changes to these settings:
    » The add-on description must clearly state what changes the add-on makes.
    » All changes must be ‘opt-in’, meaning the user must take non-default action to enact the change.
    » Uninstalling the add-on restores the user’s original settings if they were changed."

Ars Technica has a good post up about the catfight between extension developers that prompted the proposed policy changes. In a nutshell, the developers of the NoScript Firefox add-on, which polices content from "untrusted" versus "trusted" sites, faced an uproar last week when people who used the AdBlock Plus extension found it disrupting AdBlockPlus in the background. This heated blog post from discusses how the whole problem escalated. Since then, the NoScript extension has been modified to agree with the Mozilla policies, and this apology post went up.

This catfight, and the proposed policy changes from Mozilla, illustrate how delicate the open source ecosystem surrounding Firefox really is. Mozilla has long had an approval process for extensions, and other open source projects have approval processes for modules and extensions, but there are enough problems with extension developers stepping on each other's toes that an explicit set of development policies is definitely in order. Most people in the open source community would probably agree that freedom among developers is to be protected, but doesn't this latest kerfuffle illustrate that total freedom goes too far? You can express your opinion to Mozilla in this newsgroup.