On Friday, Mozilla, the internet company that is a subsidiary of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, introduced a partnership with the Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy to allow individuals to give access to their browser data to researchers in order to enable crowdsourced science.
Available to adult Firefox users, the Mozilla Rally platform allows individuals to opt in and consent to data collection defined by collaborators at research institutions approved by Mozilla. A Princeton study, “Political and COVID-19 News”, is one of the first on the platform- it examines “how people engage with news and misinformation about politics and COVID-19 across online services.”
The Mozilla announcement refers to a forthcoming second academic study, “Beyond the Paywall”, in partnership with researchers at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. That study “aims to better understand news consumption, what people value in news and the economics that could build a more sustainable ecosystem for newspapers in the online marketplace.”
Acquiring user data on social platforms and in internet browsers is crucial to researchers in a variety of fields, in particular in the social sciences. But privacy concerns- fueled by scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica breach– have made platforms risk averse when working with academic partners, despite the urgent research priorities around issues such as disinformation, public health, and the relationships between technology, media and democracy. But the Mozilla partnership aims to provide a mechanism to address these issues.
“Online services constantly experiment on users, to maximize engagement and profit, said Jonathan Mayer, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs and an affiliate of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, in a statement. “But for too long, academic researchers have been stymied when trying to experiment on online services. Rally flips the script and enables a new ecosystem of technology policy research.”
The project is not the first to use crowdsourcing methods to acquire data from users with consent. The Markup’s Citizen Browser project has powered a variety of journalistic research projects on digital platforms. And the NYU Ad Observatory provided important insight into political advertising on Facebook in the 2020 election cycle.
The announcement invites other potential research partners to contact Mozilla.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.