Users aren’t completely at the mercy of their browser-agents. Many people install ad blockers and content filters to customise the flow of data.
User empowerment is not an unalloyed good: People can inadvertently install poorly designed extensions that slow down the browser, or extensions with hidden malware that allow attackers to hijack their machines. Google’s rationale behind restricting custom functionality is to improve security, privacy and performance, but a less charitable interpretation might be that Google wants to ensure nothing stands between its ads and your eyeballs.
The proposed update applies to both Chrome and Chromium, Google’s open-source web browser. Chromium serves as the basis for Google Chrome as well as Amazon Silk, Opera and Yandex, and Microsoft is also in the process of adopting it for Edge. Together, they have a 70 per cent market share of web browsers.
Speaking to Wired, a Google spokesperson said the changes were in the design process and that the company was “working with extension developers to make sure their extensions continue to work.”
Control of a dominant web browser gives a company immense influence over the web. Last year, Google introduced a built-in Chrome feature that blocks particularly intrusive ads; things like pop-ups and mandatory delays. Before the browser was even released, the most obnoxious sites like Forbes and In Touch Weekly pre-emptively updated their sites to comply with Google’s Better Ads Standards to avoid getting blocked.
To its credit, Google has done a lot to make the internet a less hostile place. In the early 2000s, every site was optimised for Internet Explorer and the web was replete with pop-ups, frames and blinky text. If a page was inordinately slow, it was almost impossible to tell whether that was because of a malware-laden browser or terrible web design.
As sites continue to optimise for Google Chrome, more users are compelled to use Chrome for a better browsing experience. Google’s tracking scripts now appear on over 50 per cent of the 10 million most popular websites, and last week a Microsoft program manager encouraged Mozilla to give up on Firefox and embrace Chromium.
Conversations around data privacy tend to focus on what information third-party services can store and sell, with little attention paid to the user’s first line of defense. The last bastion of privacy relies on the fact that users can, to some extent, control what information is volunteered.
Bloomberg, with staff reporters