The internet browser is a gateway to a world of knowledge, a portal through which we send and receive huge amounts of information. The sheer volume of that two-way flow has put the browser in a unique position of responsibility, and over the years, there have been many tussles over the role of chief gatekeeper.
That position is currently occupied by Google Chrome, which processes around 66 per cent of the world's browsing, almost four times more than its nearest competitor. But how healthy is that dominance? Is it bad for our privacy that Chrome has become the automatic choice? Do Google's profits depend on the information that Chrome handles on our behalf? And if that is the case, do we even care?
Such is the ubiquity of Chrome that we could be forgiven for not knowing about the alternatives. Indeed, the EU’s antitrust body fined Google €4.3 billion (Dh18bn) last year for its role in positioning Chrome as the default browser on millions of devices, with no mention that other browsers exist. But they do exist, dozens of them, all trying to grab even the smallest slice of the pie that Google now effectively controls.
One of the alternatives, Brave, has recently been promoting itself as the browser for the privacy-conscious: it blocks adverts, stops the tracking of your online activity by third parties (that is other than yourself and the website you're visiting), and its servers don't store (or even see) anything you get up to. But despite a flurry of publicity, Brave still doesn't rank in the top 25 browsers, indicating that it must be handling less than 0.01 per cent of the world's browsing. This is not an easy market to break into.
How Google Chrome took charge
Ten years ago, Microsoft's Internet Explorer had been the world's most-used browser for more than a decade. In its heyday, browsing was done on desktops and laptops, but the advent of smartphones and tablets ushered in a new world – and a new browser. Chrome was sleek, no-nonsense and quick. It introduced omnibox, a field where you could either type search queries or website addresses. It felt safe and stable, and soon overtook Apple's Safari, Mozilla's Firefox and eventually Internet Explorer, taking over that browser's mantle. In recent years, however, concerns about Google's stash of information and the means by which it is collected has led to growing demands for transparency, and the opportunity to keep some of that information to ourselves.
With very little difference between browsers in terms of look, feel and performance, privacy issues are one of the few battlegrounds on which they can compete. Safari, the default browser on Mac computers, iPhones and iPads, began a war on marketing in 2017 with the incorporation of an "Intelligent Tracking Prevention" toolkit, which blocked small snippets of code – cookies – that track your movement from website to website. Last year, this was beefed up with measures to prevent "fingerprinting", where information that browsers reveal to websites about your machine – its OS, configuration and plug-ins – can be combined and used by marketers to identify you. Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, was forthright about the challenge they faced: "Data companies are clever and relentless," he said at the time.
Mozilla followed suit, announcing that Firefox would block tracking by default; it now offers users a choice of “Standard”, “Strict” or “Custom” options to fine tune privacy options. Microsoft’s recently relaunched Edge browser operates a similar system, where “Unrestricted” means that you’ll see more personalised advertising, and “Strict” means you’ll see none at all. But this characterisation of advertising as an evil force doesn’t sit well with Google, whose parent company, Alphabet, makes most of its revenue from advertising. Its advertising business pocketed $30bn (Dh110.1bn) in the first quarter of this year alone.
Reaching out to Internet users
In January, it announced a change in Chrome's code that would make blocking adverts a lot more difficult to achieve – a change which would affect other browsers using the same underlying code, such as Opera, Brave and Edge. It was another demonstration of Google's power and influence.
Brave advised its users that its advert-blocking system would circumvent Google’s obstacles, and introduced a scheme where users who chose to see adverts would be paid a cut of the advertising revenue. But while these manoeuvres get plenty of attention in the world of technology, statistics show Chrome’s popularity is undiminished.
It’s not surprising; after all, taking steps to protect your privacy – spurning targeted adverts, switching browsers, controlling the information you disclose – can be a tedious and inconvenient process. For example, if you block cookies to prevent advertisers tracking you, there may be annoying side effects, such as websites not remembering your login information. In essence, the web has been constructed to give you maximum convenience, but the price for that convenience is your personal data.
There are two kinds of internet users. The most common one doesn't care about the provenance of adverts, or would rather see relevant than irrelevant ones. The other kind, however, considers personalised advertising to be offensive, and Google-enabled sales pitches to be an assault on privacy. One of those people is The Washington Post columnist Geoffrey Fowler, who last month accused Chrome of enabling "a personal data caper of absurd proportions".
"In a week of web surfing, I discovered 11,189 requests for tracker 'cookies' that Chrome would have ushered right on to my computer but were automatically blocked by Firefox," he wrote.
Fowler described those cookies as "hooks that data firms use to build profiles of your interests, income and personality", and given the surreptitious way they function, it's perhaps understandable that he considers them as a form of espionage. But we do have a choice in the matter. Other web browsers do exist, and Google is now being forced to openly admit this, thanks to threats of further fines by the EU. So, if you do choose to use Chrome, a smooth browser experience awaits you, with swift logins and seamless performance. There'll also be tailored adverts. That's the deal. Take it or leave it.