Mozilla Looks To Reduce Push Notification Spam

The Mozilla Foundation has said it plans to carry out two user-interface experiments as it looks for ways to manage a growing number of unsolicited website prompts, an issue it said has turned into “permission spam”.

Mozilla said the vast majority of permission prompts shown to Firefox beta testers involved notifications – that is, asking users to grant the site permission to show automated push notifications, which can continue to be displayed after the user has left the site – and that less than 3 percent of those prompts are accepted by users.

Push notifications are built into browsers including Chrome and Firefox, and allow sites such as news services, social networks and chat apps to let users know when new content appears.

But Mozilla said the feature appears to often cause annoyance or confusion.

Mozilla is to experiment with displaying an icon in the address bar, which can be clicked on to display the push notification request. Image: Mozilla

Browser spam

“Most prompts are dismissed, while almost 19 percent of prompts caused users to leave the site immediately after being confronted with them,” said Firefox Desktop engineer Johann Hofmann in a blog post.

He added that, by contrast, the camera/microphone prompt had an acceptance rate of about 85 percent.

Such figures suggest the notificaiton permissions prompt is being used in such a way that users in many cases don’t see any value in it or don’t understand why it’s there, Hofmann said.

In some cases, sites may be showing the prompt without giving users enough context to know why they’re seeing it, while in other cases it may have little to offer other than an annoyance, he said.

As on Chrome, Firefox users have the option of blocking push notification requests from all sites, but Hofmann said Mozilla is looking for ways to protect the majority of its users who don’t alter their settings or don’t want to take such a drastic measure.

The first experiment is to run in two phases over the course of the month of April, and is to collect data from users of the Firefox Nightly test releases.

It is to examine the idea of denying all push notification requests unless a user interacts with the site, such as by carrying out a mouse click or keystroke.

Sites’ requests to use the Notiications feature will all be automatically denied unless they follow such user interactions, Hofmann said.

For the first two weeks of the experiment, the browser is to show no user-facing notifications whilst the restriction is in effect, while in the final two weeks a permission request will cause an icon to appear in the address bar.

A user clicking on the icon would see the usual permissions request.

Data collection

However, Mozilla said it suspects such an approach would be overly broad, and as such it plans to carry out a second experiment to collect data on the circumstances under which users interact with push notification prompts

The experiment, which is to gather data from a “small percentage” of those using Firefox Release 67, is to examine data such as how long a user has been on a site and whether they have rejected many notification prompts in the past.

Hofmann emphasised this experiment would only run for a “limited time” and would require a “strict data review”.

“At Mozilla, this sort of data collection on a release channel is an exception to the rule,” he said.

Firefox 67 is currently set for release in May.

He added that web developers should be aware that Firefox may begin automatically rejecting push notification prompts in the future based on automatically determined rules.

“When such an automatic rejection happens, users may be able to revert this decision retroactively,” he said.  “The Permissions API offers an opportunity to monitor changes in permission state to handle this case.”

He said web developers could “future-proof” their sites by ensuring that users have enough context to understand a push notification request and delaying the prompt until the user chooses to show it.

“As a general principle, prompting for permissions should be done based on user interaction,” Hofmann said.

Last month Firefox released version 66 of the browser with features to reduce certain online annoyances, such as blocking auto-playing content by default.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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