Steve September 18, 2020

It’s easy to get caught up in YouTube as it recommends an endless array of videos, with each one offering you more of the same type of content. But it’s not always the same content. Sometimes the process gets convoluted, and you wind up watching something you have no interest in. Mozilla is curious why this happens and created a browser extension to track YouTube recommendations.

Identifying the Problem

Mozilla introduced a new browser extension this week: RegretsReporter. Its purpose is to crowdsource the “regrettable recommendations” of YouTube. The hope is that users will get a better understanding of how the algorithm works and to provide details of the patterns it discovers.

The YouTube recommendations mission was something YouTube started working on last year. One instance it collected was a user searching for videos about Vikings and getting videos about white supremacy recommended to them. Another YouTube user searched for “fail” and received recommendations of horrific fatal car accidents.

Mozilla vice president of advocacy and engagement, Ashley Boyd, said until now there hasn’t been such a large effort to understand the YouTube recommendations.

“So much attention goes to Facebook — and deservedly so — when it comes to misinformation,” Boyd pointed out. “But there are other elements in the digital ecosystem that have been under attended-to, and YouTube was one of those. We started to look at what YouTube said, how they curated content, and noticed that they responded to concerns about the algorithm and said they were making progress. But there was no way to verify their claims.”

News Mozilla Youtube Recommendations Dog

YouTube doesn’t appear to be very happy with Mozilla poking around in its business and looking into its recommendations. A YouTube spokesperson said in a statement that the company is always interested to see research on its algorithm.

“However, it’s hard to draw broad conclusions from anecdotal examples, and we update our recommendations systems on an ongoing basis to improve the experience for users,” said the spokesperson. It was also noted that over this past year, YouTube has launched “over 30” different changes to reduce recommendations of borderline content.

There have been many times before when the video site/app has promised to tweak its algorithm. Boyd notes that those promises were there even as the video platform’s executives were aware that videos with hate speech and conspiracy theories were being recommended.

Mozilla’s Browser Extension to Track YouTube Recommendations

Mozilla hopes the browser extension will make its algorithm more transparent. The company wants to learn what type of recommended videos lead to racist, violent, or conspirational content. Mozilla is hoping to identify any patterns of how harmful content is recommended.

“I would love for people to get more interested in how AI and,q in this case, recommendation systems, touch their lives,” added Boyd. “It doesn’t have to be mysterious, and we can be clearer about how you can control it.”

News Mozilla Youtube Recommendations Phone

If you’re concerned about your privacy with Mozilla collecting your YouTube browsing information, the collected data will be linked to a user ID that is randomly generated and not your YouTube account. Only Mozilla will have access to the raw data, explained Boyd. It won’t collect data from private browser windows, and when it shares its results, it will minimize the risks of users being identified.

However, YouTube finds Mozilla’s proposed method “questionable.” For example, it wasn’t able to review how “regrettable” is defined.

Mozilla’s plans are to collect information for six months and then present its findings to users and YouTube.

“We believe [YouTube is] committed to this issue,” said Boyd. “We would love it if they could learn anything additional from our research and making some viable changes to work toward building more trustworthy systems for recommending content.”

Throughout, though, the one thing that hasn’t been answered is why Mozilla has taken such an interest in YouTube and its recommendations.

If you have a larger concern about being tracked when you use Firefox, check out these two simple and effective Firefox add-ons to stop sites from tracking you.

Laura Tucker
Laura Tucker

Laura has spent nearly 20 years writing news, reviews, and op-eds, with more than 10 of those years as an editor as well. She has exclusively used Apple products for the past three decades. In addition to writing and editing at MTE, she also runs the site’s sponsored review program.

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