Mozilla this week resurrected its Test Pilot preview program, offering Firefox users a free VPN-like service to encrypt browser-to-site-and-back transmissions over public networks.
"The Firefox Private Network is an extension which provides a secure, encrypted path to the web to protect your connection and your personal information anywhere and everywhere you use your Firefox browser," wrote Marissa Wood, vice president of product, in a post to the Mozilla blog.
The free service is available immediately, but only to U.S.-based users running the desktop version of Firefox. A Firefox account - typically used for syncing copies of the browser on multiple devices - and an accompanying add-on are required.
Wood trumpeted Firefox Private Network using examples highlighting privacy, Mozilla's raison d'Ãªtre. The encryption, she argued, would "protect all your sensitive information like the web addresses you visit, personal and financial information" at unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots. The service also masks the originating IP address "to keep advertising networks from tracking your browsing history."
Website security vendor Cloudflare provided the proxy server for Firefox's VPN (virtual private network), Mozilla said. (Cloudflare offers a VPN service, dubbed "Warp," to its customers, as part of the new-this-year 126.96.36.199 DNS resolver app for iOS and Android.)
Once the add-on is installed and the user logs in with his or her account credentials, Firefox Private Network is extremely simple to operate: It's either on or off. There are no settings, no options. Computerworld did notice a performance hit while browsing with Firefox Private Network engaged; sites appeared slower than with it disabled.
Mozilla was clear that the free part of Firefox Private Network would likely not last, as the organization intends to charge a fee at some point.
"Your feedback will be essential in making sure that we offer a full complement of services that address the problems you face online with the right-priced service solutions," wrote Wood, referring not just to the VPN but also to other, still-undisclosed offerings. She added that the Firefox Private Network beta testing, which is what Test Pilot now is, will run through some variations to "explore technical and possible pricing options" for the service.
Mozilla has not hidden its desire to branch into new revenue territories to divest from the more-or-less-single-source of search engine royalties. In June, CEO Chris Beard and other Mozilla officials said that paid service subscriptions would roll out this fall, but assured users that the browser itself would remain free of charge. The VPN could be the first of several paid services pitched to Firefox users, or part of a larger all-in-one package; Mozilla hasn't been clear about the form(s) this new revenue stream may take.
Nor did Wood say how long her team will test Firefox Private Network. However, she did position this iteration of Test Pilot differently than before. "The difference with the newly relaunched Test Pilot program is that these products and services may be outside the Firefox browser, and will be far more polished, and just one step shy of general public release," she said.
Mozilla has been back and forth with Test Pilot. The name harks to 2009, when it described a data-gathering effort on how people used the web. In 2016, Test Pilot was refocused, that time for users to "try out experimental ((in-browser)) features and let us know what you think," according to Nick Nguyen, a now-former vice president of Firefox. That version was written off in January, Mozilla saying at the time that it no longer needed a separate test bed for add-ons.
"Third time's the charm," said Wood.