Whenever you browse the internet, you can be certain that tech companies are quietly collecting, analyzing, and re-selling information about your activities. But what if you could take some control over how your data is used by donating it to research initiatives dedicated to “a safer, more transparent, and more equitable internet”?
That’s the premise behind Rally, a browser-based research platform developed by Mozilla in partnership with Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Rally is available only on Firefox, Mozilla’s privacy-centric browser, but Mozilla plans to make it available on other browsers soon.
After installing the Rally browser extension, users can choose to enroll in one or more active studies. Rally is committed to data minimization, meaning that it only collects the data that a given study needs. Users’ data is not shared with anyone besides the researchers conducting the study and their collaborators at Mozilla. All data is stored securely and is deleted when the study ends.
The Princeton team behind Rally is headed by Jonathan Mayer ’09, an assistant professor with joint appointments in computer science and the School of Public and International Affairs. Previously, Mayer served as technology counsel to then-Sen. Kamala Harris and as chief technologist of the Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau. In these roles, Mayer observed that members of Congress attempting to develop tech policy were hampered by a lack of available data, since most tech companies are unable or unwilling to share their data with researchers and policymakers. Rally allows researchers to bypass tech companies entirely by gathering data on their own.
For example, if users see a warning about disinformation on a tweet or Facebook post linking to an untrustworthy website, how does that affect their likelihood of visiting the website and of resharing it with their network?
Mayer notes that other methods for studying internet use, like lab-based studies or surveys with self-reported data, aren’t very good at replicating users’ real-life browsing habits. By tracking browsing habits in real time, across multiple platforms, Rally aims to provide researchers with a richer, more accurate record of how people actually use the internet. Currently, Mayer and his team are using Rally to conduct a study about how users consume and respond to news about politics and COVID-19.
Although Rally is available only on desktop browsers for now, Mayer says the ability to capture mobile browsing data will be an important part of Rally’s future. Another issue is sampling bias. Since participants must choose not only to use Firefox, but also to install Rally and to enroll in a particular study, study results will not reflect a representative sample of the U.S. population. Mayer believes that researchers can compensate for this bias by encouraging Rally users to complete an optional demographic survey, and by using techniques like reweighting and subsampling.
Ben Kaiser, a graduate student in computer science who specializes in online disinformation, is excited about Rally’s potential to help researchers understand how users respond to online interventions like content warnings. For example, if users see a warning about disinformation on a tweet or Facebook post linking to an untrustworthy website, how does that affect their likelihood of visiting the website and of resharing it with their network?
As part of Rally’s June launch, Mayer’s team also debuted WebScience, an open-source toolkit that makes it easier for researchers to design and run browser-based studies. Anne Kohlbrenner, a graduate student in computer science, hopes that WebScience will be an accessible option for as many researchers as possible, including those who don’t have a technical background. “I think [Rally] has a lot of potential to democratize the research process,” she says.