Firefox draws battle lines against push notification spam

Mozilla doesn't yet know how to solve the problem of website notification in the browser, but it wants you to know it's working on it.

If you're a sentient web user, the notification phenomenon needs little explanation: visit a site and it almost immediately throws up a prompt that asks you whether you're happy to “allow notifications.”

Unlike other annoying website pop-ups, push permissions are powerful because they can activate even when users are not on that website.

In extreme examples, they're deployed by scam sites as a way of pushing fake extensions and rogue sites, unleashing today's equivalent of the endless adware pop-ups that used to swarm browsers.

Push notifications have become so ubiquitous that Mozilla's own telemetry suggests they are now by some distance the most frequently shown permission request, generating 18 million of them in the month to 25 January for a sample set of its users.

Only 3% of users accepted the prompts, while one in five caused visitors to leave the site immediately. This is at odds with other permission requests, as Mozilla's Johann Hofmann explains:

This is in stark contrast to the camera/microphone prompt, which has an acceptance rate of about 85%!

It's a bombardment that, at best, delays users and at worst drives them away from sites.

Why do websites over-use push notifications?

Because the web is cutthroat and sites think they need to employ all the attention-grabbing tricks to survive, even if that means annoying most users, most of the time.

It's an example of what is known as ‘the tragedy of the commons'. While each site is behaving rationally in its own interests, if every site does the same thing, the outcome undermines their collective interest.

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