Mozilla has announced it is ending access to Mozilla Location Service (MLS), which provides accurate, privacy-respecting, and crowdsourced geolocation data.

Developers and 3rd-party projects that use MLS to detect a users’ location, such as the location framework GeoClue, which is used by apps like GNOME Maps and Weather, have only a few months left to continue using the service.

New API access keys will not be granted going forward (and pending requests deleted), Mozilla say. In late March, POST data submissions will return 403 responses. Finally, on June 12, all 3rd-party API keys will be removed and MLS data only accessible by Mozilla.

We knew cuts were coming from Mozilla’s new CEO the axe has fallen ruthlessly quick on this.

MLS provides developers with a free, open way to offer GPS-style location detection features in their apps/projects on devices that don’t have GPS hardware, instead using (amongst other signals) Wi-Fi access points/BSSIDs and Bluetooth beacons.

And it does so without any of the privacy implications most competing geolocation services have.

Alas, MLS’ accuracy has declined in recent years.

Patent infringement claims in 2019 saw Mozilla reach a settlement to avoid litigation. As part of that settlement it was forced to make changes to MLS that impacted its ability to invest in (commercially exploit?) and improve the service.

Finding a new direction

With Mozilla putting a pin (sorry) in MLS, where to now for GeoClue, which acts as the location glue in many of the most popular open-source apps and Linux desktop environments?

Well, one upside is that GeoClue is a versatile framework. It already supports multiple location detection methods, including IP-based ones. So come June it (and your favourite apps) won’t suddenly stop being able to function — which is good news.

That said, I do imagine GeoClue maintainers will seek a replacement to MLS. Google’s location services are a possibility. A contentious addition for many in the open-source community? Sure, and (as a non-developer) I’m not sure its API is 100% free to use.

But the sad reality is that there just aren’t a lot of free, open, privacy-friendly, accurate, and (rather importantly for a framework built in to Linux desktops) reliable alternatives to Mozilla Location Services, which has built up a colossal “signal map” from which to pinpoint locations.

Which makes its demise all the more frustrating for free, open-source software.