See the revision history at the end of this document.
When 'free' software isn't
Have you ever wondered how Mozilla gets paid by the privacy-hating mega-monopolies like Google? Simple; when you use the default search engine plugins that are packaged with the browser, parameters similar to these are added to your search query:
client=firefox name="appid" value="ff" name="hspart" value="mozilla"
These parameters inform the search engine that you're using a Firefox/Mozilla product and that, in part, is how Mozilla is able to rake in millions annually. I would have no problem whatsoever with Mozilla making money were it an ethical company, but it isn't. If you do not wish to support Mozilla for partnering with highly unethical companies like Google or want to punish them for the many other stupid things they've done, read on.
Types of search engines
The two primary types of search engines are meta search engines and search indexes and it is important to understand the difference. Google, Yahoo and Bing for example use software "robots" called "crawlers" to discover and index web content. In other words these companies actively seek out updated and fresh content to store in their databases so it's ready for you to find. On the other hand, meta search engines do not index the web and instead rely upon third parties such as Google and/or Bing to provide their search results (most use Bing). When you use these so-called "alternative" search engines, such as DuckDuckGo, Startpage, Searx, etc., you are still subject to the filter bubbles and censorship that is practiced by the corporate giants. That said, privacy-respecting meta search engines may still have value because they offer a method to access the data-harvesting corporate giants without the privacy violations that accessing them directly would incur. Understand though that they are not true alternatives as they are often described, but more like proxies. These "alternative" search engines are also subject to local laws, such as secret surveillance requests issued by a government.
Indexing the web involves storing massive amounts of data and having the bandwidth to deliver the search results and this is an incredibly difficult and expensive proposition that requires significant resources and infrastructure. This is why meta search companies like DuckDuckGo, Startpage, Qwant and others rely heavily upon corporations like Alphabet's Google and Microsoft's Bing. There are better alternatives that both respect your privacy and are censorship resistant however. Ever hear of a peer-to-peer distributed search engine? Imagine a free, open-source, decentralized search engine where the web index is created and distributed by ordinary people using personal computers, each storing a piece of the whole. This is what the developers behind YaCy have done with their search engine and i think it's a great way to escape the filter bubbles created by big tech, however YaCy is not yet a viable search engine as of this writing. Mojeek, although it's a centralized search engine, is very focused on privacy, maintains it's own index, and is quite usable. For a list of alternative search engines, see Alternative Search Engines That Respect Your Privacy.
Adding search engines to Firefox
To mitigate potential risks to your anonymity posed by the default Firefox search engines, simply disable all of them and use alternatives. One easy way to add a search engine to Firefox is to find one you like and then right-click the address bar and click the "Add..." menu item. Most search engines can be added to Firefox in the same way, but there are additional methods also.
Another easy way to add a custom search engine to Firefox is with the Search Engines Helper add-on by Soufiane Sakhi.
Yet another way to add custom search engines is by using the mozlz4-edit add-on by 'serj_kzv'. This extension allows you to edit the
search engine plugin file directly from within Firefox, though a browser restart is necessary before the changes are realized. This file is located in your Firefox profile directory and it is here that Firefox stores the code for all of its search engine plugins. If you use this tool, be careful not to touch the default search engines in the file, else Firefox will discard all your changes. Instead you can create copies of the default engines and edit the copies if you want to use them.
Manually editing search.json.mozlz4
If you would rather avoid the hassle of manually editing the default Firefox search engine plugins, see the 'Download preconfigured search plugins' section below where you can download my
If you have already added custom search engines to Firefox, create a copy of
and work with the copy, reason being that if you mess up, Firefox will will delete all of your modifications and restore the default search plugins. If you don't want to see or use the default engines, simply disable them in the search preferences of Firefox. And no, as far as i know you cannot remove the default search engine plugins. If you don't know where your Firefox profile is located, load about:profiles in the address bar and you'll figure it out.
To edit the search engines contained in the
file using the mozlz4-edit extension, just click it's tool bar icon, then 'Open file' and point it to your
file after you've made a backup copy. I'm not sure it's possible to sanitize the default search engine plugins which are packaged with Firefox any longer because the URL parameters discussed earlier are no longer contained in the file, but if you want to modify them in any way you must copy them and edit the copies being sure to give the copies different names since no two search plugins can share the same name.
Download preconfigured search plugins
If you'd rather avoid editing the search engine plugins, you can download a copy of my personal
file that should work for Firefox version 57 and up ("up" meaning until the next time Mozilla decides to break everything again). The download contains the default engines which come with the U.S. English version of Firefox along with a pile of additional search engines i use. All in all there's around 35 search engine plugins.
Install: Backup your existing
file(!), then extract the the one from the archive to your Firefox profile directory and restart Firefox.
When you use the search engines you'll notice that all the non-default ones are tagged as follows:
= indexing search engines that actively crawl the web in order to build their own index. These engines are essential for thwarting the censorship practiced by Google and Bing which is then passed on to all the meta engines that use their results including DuckDuckGo, Startpage, Qwant, Swisscows, Searx, MetaGer, etc..
= hybrid search engines which rely upon both 3rd parties (usually Bing) and index their own content.
= meta search engines which rely only upon 3rd parties, usually Bing.
= special purpose search engines which serve a specific purpose, such as for searching for scientific documents.
Any engines which are not tagged are the default search engines, all of which you can/should disable in Firefox's preferences (about:preferences#search).
You'll probably want to rearrange the search plugins from Firefox's preferences so each type is grouped together.
Removing Firefox system add-ons
In addition to search engine plugins, Mozilla also packages system add-ons with Firefox, installs them without your permission, and doesn't provide an easy way to remove or disable all of them. These system add-ons have been used for controversial purposes in the past. To remove them, see the 'System add-ons' section of the Firefox Configuration Guide for Privacy Freaks and Performance Buffs.
Special mention goes to 'Thorin-Oakenpants' (aka 'Pants') as well as the 'arkenfox' crew and their GitHub repository where they host an excellent privacy-centric user.js for Firefox and its derivatives, as well as an extensive Wiki full of valuable information.
Resources at 12bytes.org:
- mozlz4-edit Firefox add-on by serj_kzv
- Measuring Search in Firefox | Firefox Data
- followonsearch/METRICS.md at master · mozilla/followonsearch · GitHub
- Firefox: How to remove all System Add-ons? | Techdows
- Addressing default search engine privacy · Issue #88 · arkenfox/user.js/arkenfox/user.js · GitHub
- list: Search Engines [for Wiki] · Issue #118 · arkenfox/user.js/arkenfox/user.js · GitHub
- Creating OpenSearch plugins for Firefox
- Mycroft Project: Search Engine Plugins - Firefox IE Chrome
- The Ultimate Guide to the Google Search Parameters
- 5 Best Search Engines That Respect Your Privacy - BestVPN.com
- Duck Duck Go: Illusion of Privacy
- Neat URL :: Add-ons for Firefox
- User.js file - MozillaZine Knowledge Base
- Whoogle Search
- uploaded a fresh search.json.mozlz4 file
- corrected some links
- minor edits