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A Ramble through Firefox

You should use Firefox for many reasons.

You should use Firefox because the Web browser world is otherwise dominated by two giant corporations: Google, who are the definition of surveillance capitalists, and Apple, who seem to pay more attention to privacy, but want to create closed systems that they can closely control.

You should use Firefox because of must-have add-ons like uBlock Origin, without which the modern Web is far less enjoyable, usable, and secure. Google is pushing for Chrome to adopt a new extension format that will prevent ad blockers from working properly. Not to mention that Firefox for Android is the only mobile browser that supports add-ons, and they're actively improving that support. I wrote more about this kind of tooling a few years ago.

You should use Firefox because its parent nonprofit, Mozilla, is much more open about its work than for-profit corporations, as Mozilla Labs, Mozilla Support and MDN exemplify.

You should use Firefox because they take the time to properly support free platforms like Linux and Wayland: Chrome still has many bugs there, years after most open-source and free programs have moved to support them. I guess it's not profitable for them to do so.

But this article isn't about why you should use Firefox. That's just the prelude, as worries increase that Firefox's perceived market share may be declining to a critical point.

This article is about getting comfortable with Firefox. More specficially, it's about getting comfortable with disagreeing with some of the decisions the Firefox team at Mozilla has made, and comfortable with making your own decisions.

It's about taking ownership of the tools that you use, and understanding that Firefox is considerably more open to that ownership than Chrome.

If you want to get to know your neighborhood, your town, or your countryside, you go for a ramble. Let's take a ramble through Firefox.

This ramble is going to follow the trail made the customizations that I make whenever I have a fresh copy of Firefox. They might not be the same ones you want, and it's not at all a comprehensive list. It's just some knowledge that I find useful, and you might as well.

All of the below was tested in Firefox 120.


Firefox has always had support for profiles, which allow you to run multiple instances of Firefox in parallel, with completely separate settings and history. This is useful for keeping my different roles from getting in each others' way; for instance, I have a separate profile for Nerd Nite Tokyo's social media accounts, so that I don't have to log out of my main Twitter or Mastodon accounts to use Nerd Nite's. It's also useful for doing testing without affecting your main profile, or for buggy websites that only work with a very specific combination of settings. There's probably a way to do some of these tasks using Firefox Containers instead, but profiles have more general usefulness and stronger separation.

To make sure the rest of my recommendations work properly, I'm going to create a new profile and apply my changes there.

(By the way, Chrome has a more obscure --user-data-dir= command-line option which mostly does the same thing).

Search engines

If you type something in the Firefox address bar that doesn't look like a URL or a domain name, Firefox will assume you're trying to search for something, and pass the phrase along to Google. But there's other search engines out there, like DuckDuckGo, that you should try out instead.

In the application menu, go to Settings -> Search and explore a bit. I always select "Add search bar in toolbar," so that I can easily see suggestions from my search history without the clutter of your full browsing history. Not to mention that you can search for things that look like URLs this way.

(By the way, did you know that you can get to the URL bar in a hurry by typing Ctrl+l? Or the search bar with Ctrl+k? It's too bad that many trendy Web applications like GitHub have stopped respecting this and started grabbing Ctrl+k for their own use in the last year or two).

Anyway, under "Default Search Engine," you can choose DuckDuckGo.

I also turn off search suggestions, which are nothing but a distraction and create a lot of network noise. It's especially irritating that, by default, they obscure your browsing history in the URL bar. Fewer distractions makes for better tools.

Oh, and did you notice at the bottom of the settings that you can search lots of other things just by prepending something like @wikipedia or * to your search? I haven't walked through this in a while, and, honestly, I didn't know that. Pretty confusing that this looks almost the same as the entirely different feature smart keywords, though.

UI improvements

Firefox seems to think that it's special. Everything else on my computer has a standard window decoration that makes it easy for me to visually distinguish one program window from another. Firefox, presumably in an attempt to squeeze out a little more space for displaying websites, gets rid of the window decoration.

And, yet, as of a couple of years ago, the Firefox developers also decided that they would only support a super-tall tab bar and URL bar that take up much more screen real estate than necessary. Let's do something about both of these things.

Go to More tools -> Customize toolbar... and look in the lower-left-hand corner. There's the title bar checkbox; check that and Firefox gains the window decoration that makes it into a good citizen of the desktop.

Over to the right, there's a drop-down for "Density"... but the only two options, "Normal" and "Touch." There used to be another one called "Compact." To get it back, we'll have to enter about:config. We'll be doing a lot more with this later.

Type about:config in the address bar, and click through the warning. Search for the value and change it from false to true. Now, go back to "Customize Firefox" and you'll see a new density, called "Compact (not supported)." Choose that, and enjoy some more space to stretch out in.

Before leaving "Customize Firefox," have a look around. Be annoyed that the menu option was called "Customize toolbar," even though the tab is called "Customize Firefox." But, more importantly, look at all the different tools you can add to your toolbar! For me, personally, I typically add a "Bookmarks menu" button for easy access to my bookmarks, and remove the useless "Flexible Space" that's there by default. Click "Done" to wrap up here.

Unnecessary distractions and ads

Firefox comes bundled with some extra stuff that is just going to distract you.

You don't need a start page, for instance, especially not one that is going to send you down a rabbit hole every time you open a new tab. Instead of using a start page, if there's a bunch of websites that you routinely check, add them all to a bookmarks folder. Firefox will open all bookmarks in a folder at once in new tabs, if you ask it to.

The start page is easy to turn off. Go to Settings -> Home and switch from "Firefox Home" to "Blank Page," then uncheck everything below that.

While in Settings, take the opportunity to make the user interface follow the principle of least astonishment just a bit more. Go to Settings -> General and head to the bottom. Make sure that "Always show scrollbars" is checked; now the scrollbar won't randomly change from a tiny sliver to its full size when you move your mouse over it, and it's easier to see where you are in a page. Then, make sure "Use smooth scrolling," "Recommend extensions as you browse," and "Recommend features as you browse" are all unchecked. Now, you won't get distracted by confusing pop-ups while you're browsing the Web, and smooth scrolling won't make it feel like you can't precisely control where you are on a page.

There's also a tool bundled in Firefox called Pocket that will, if you're not careful, send you floating down a never-ending stream of mildly insteresting articles. Turn it off. Go to about:config, look for extensions.pocket.enabled, and change it from true to false.

Finally, Firefox will try to sell you their VPN from time to time. It's not a bad VPN -- it's a rebrand of Mullvad and as such one of the only VPNs that Consumer Reports approves of, rightly so -- but you probably don't need a VPN. Your browser shouldn't be pushing ads on you. Luckily, Firefox makes it easy to turn these off. Go to about:config, look for browser.vpn_promo.enabled, and change it from true to false.

(Interesting to note the browser.vpn_promo.disallowed_regions variable that's in there too, blocking the ads in places like China and Russia. Exploring is fun).

Mozilla account

I don't use a Mozilla account, as I store my passwords elsewhere and don't have a need for the other synchronization features.

If you want to use this feature, you should know that it's earned praise for its secure design from experts who have also strongly criticized Chrome Sync. One more reason to use Firefox.

But, if you're like me, go to about:config, search for identity.fxaccounts.enabled, and set it to false.

Built-in security features

If you take one piece of advice from this article, let it be that you should turn on Strict Enhanced Tracking Protection and HTTPS-Only Mode.

Both of these are found under Settings -> Privacy & Security. I have not found Strict protection to cause any issues with websites I commonly use.

On the other hand, HTTPS-Only mode will cause scary messages to appear on the small minority of websites that still do not use HTTPS. If you are just looking at your barber's website, maybe HTTP is okay. If you get warnings about HTTPS not working properly on Amazon or Gmail or something, you should probably not proceed. For more on HTTPS, see my article from last year about just what it is and how it relates to Abraham Lincoln.

It's of interest that Firefox's tracking protection disrupts Google Analytics. Because of this, Firefox users become essentially invisible to many website owners, who then erroneously conclude that nobody uses Firefox. The truth is, we really don't know how many Firefox users are out there; Chrome and Safari users are much easier to count.

Add-on security features

If you take two pieces of advice from this article, make sure that you install the uBlock Origin add-on.

Take a look in uBlock Origin's settings and understand what filter lists are. uBlock Origin can make arbitrary changes to websites to remove advertisements and annoyances, and there are many filter lists available to improve this functionality. There is an inherent risk here in that the filter list authors could, if they wanted to and weren't caught, spy on everything you do online. However, for most people most of the time, this risk is likely small compared to the dangers that an unfiltered Web presents.

There's other extensions worth installing as well. Prefer to use "Recommended" extensions, which have been more closely reviewed for safety. It is at least reasurring that security researchers have noted Mozilla seems to have a better track record than Google at keeping out malicious extensions.

A few more add-ons for your consideration (and, don't forget, these work on Firefox for Android as well):

  • Decentraleyes will speed up browsing a little, help you use less bandwidth, and prevent some forms of surveilliance.
  • Facebook Container was created by Mozilla themselves to stop Facebook's aggressive tracking from every Like button on every website out there.
  • LeechBlock NG helps manage time wasters.

Secure from within

By default, Firefox will send some data about your activities back to servers run by the Mozilla Foundation. They also allow themselves to install and run "studies" on your machine, which can unpredicatably change your browser's behavior without your knowledge or consent.

I think that it is better to disable all of these. Under Settings, go to Privacy and Security and look for "Firefox Data Collection and Use." Uncheck everything.


Doing some directed poking around in about:config, there's two more keys with interesting names: privacy.fingerprintingProtection and privacy.resistFingerprinting. What could these possibly be about? And why are there two of them?

Explaining browser fingerprinting is beyond the scope of this article, but, in effect, there is one polite, reliable way to identify a visitor to your website, the HTTP cookie. You can manage and control cookies; you can decline to store them, or you can delete them if you wish.

However, there are many other ways to use your browser's unique configuration, combined with your IP address, to track you without your consent. Many years ago, the EFF published a paper and tool called Panopticlick detailing these techniques; this has evolved into Cover Your Tracks, which can explain the fingerprinting problem in more detail.

This brings us to privacy.fingerprintingProtection and privacy.resistFingerprinting.

privacy.fingerprintingProtection is pretty straightforward: it's the configuration entry for part of the Enhanced Tracking Protection that we turned on earlier. According to Mozilla, it tries to identify known fingerprinters and block them from working. It generally won't get in the way of your Web browsing experience, but it is also less effective than it could be because of this blocklist approach.

On the other hand, digging in to privacy.resistFingerprinting is like stumbling across the ruins of an old building during our ramble: let's explore a little more, but watch out for rotten floorboards.

The Tor Project has, for many years, operated an onion routing network intended to allow anonymous use of the Internet. Fingerprinting, even without an IP address, is an obvious threat to anonymity, and so, many years ago, Tor used Firefox as a base to create their own customized Web browser. Within the Tor Browser, you always appear to be in the UTC time zone. You will always claim to be running on Windows, no matter what you're really on. Your browser window will try to stay at a common size. Access to HTML5 Canvas elements will be tightly controlled. Many subtle changes to browser behavior will be made in order to eliminate any source of uniqueness.

Mozilla started a project in the late 2010s to bring this functionality back into Firefox. It's not for the faint of heart. Some websites will not work properly. But trying to understand all of the changes that needed to be made would be a good education into how modern Web browsers work.

At this point in the ramble, though, the sun is already setting and we've wandered off the trail. Time to start heading back. Before we do, though, you might also want to read about disabling WebRTC with the media.peerconnection.enabled configuration value, if you're using a VPN.


In this article, I've recommended that you turn off some of the things that make Mozilla money and help pay for Firefox's development: sponsored entries on your start page, bounties from Google for directing searches towards them, the Firefox VPN, for instance.

In exchange, you may wish to consider donating time to spread the word and help others adopt Firefox.

Possibly consider donating money as well, but before doing so, it may be worthwile to consider that the Foundation's CEO has continued to see pay raises every year despite Firefox's declining market share and Foundation layoffs -- and, to be clear, "pay raise" means from $2.5 million in 2018 to $7 million in 2022, hardly a cost-of-living increase.

Maybe it's because they're trying to become a venture capital firm? Donations are not the Foundation's main source of income, and they seem set on using their savings to find new sources of income through investing.

Back to home(page)

A ramble has no particular destination; its route might miss the most spectacular views or famous sights. It has no definitive conclusion, no concept of completeness. In this way, as an analogy for learning to use computers well, I think that it is particularly apt.

I could go on for far longer and still cover only a tiny sliver of the implicit complexity of the modern Web; I will instead leave it here. Many thanks to the Syllabus Project article "Taking an Internet Walk" for inspiring the idea of a Firefox ramble.

Finally, if you're looking for another ramble, try pressing the Alt key while using Firefox. This will expose the good old menu bar at the top of the window, where a wealth of knowledge is hidden from the average user. I hope you stumble on something interesting.