Mobile privacy
Mobile privacy. Image by Biljana Jovanovic from Pixabay

by Basebone

Everywhere you go on the web, an army of companies are tracking you. Now the browser companies are starting to block them. Is this the birth of a new private web? Or will it just make the trackers even sneakier?

Over the years, the browser companies competed over which product was faster or had the best features.

Now they’re all pretty amazing. Whichever you pick – Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera, Firefox – you can be sure the experience will be great.

So is there anything left to differentiate them?

Yes, there is: privacy.

Recently, the battle to be the most private browser has stepped up. Now all the big browser firms are restricting (to varying degrees) the ways that ad companies track you around the web.

The move towards making web browsing more private started with the Mozilla Foundation which, together with the Mozilla Corporation, developed the Mozilla Firefox browser.

Mozilla is a not-for-profit foundation so it doesn’t have the same commercial drivers as the others. For this reason, it has always positioned Firefox as an ethical choice.

In 2018, it upped the stakes by launching a project to allow blocking cookies from known third parties. It called this feature Enhanced Tracking Protection.

Why? Well, let’s take a step back and dig into what cookies are for.

At the dawn of the web, cookies were all about convenience. Websites would send small pieces of data which were stored on the users’ device while the user was browsing the internet. This would allow the user to have a better user experience the next time as the browser would remember what items the user may have added to the shopping cart or basic login information.

But then advertisers (and the vast number of intermediaries that assist them) realised that they could use cookies to follow you on other sites.

The cookie would identify you and keep track of your web habits. The tracking companies could use this insight to serve you personalised ads. So that’s why you might see ads for, say, gardening products even if you are on a site about cycling.

But over the years, people have become concerned about this. It’s creepy. And sometimes it leads to scandals. In one famous example, a US supermarket used tracking data to work out that a customer was pregnant. The pole identified 25 products that when purchased together indicated that a woman was most likely pregnant. It started sending maternity coupons to a teen girl who hadn’t told her parents she was expecting.

These kinds of abuses have put privacy on the agenda.

So, after Mozilla’s move, the other browser companies also acted to block cookies.

In fact, Apple went even further. It turned privacy into a selling point. This year, it started running ads with the headline: Privacy matters.

Of course, it is easy for Apple to take the high moral ground. Apple makes hundreds of dollars from every iPhone it sells. It doesn’t depend on advertising.

The question is a lot trickier for Google. It’s become one of the richest companies in the world by tracking people and serving them targeted ads.

So, which are considered the best web browsers for 2019?. The answer is easy, Chrome is the market leader with a whopping 55% of the market share. Other companies such as Safari come second with only a 13% and Internet Explorer together with Edge come in third place with 9% of the market share. Chrome has increased its lead gradually over the years thanks to the changes they introduced in relation to the Coalition for Better Ads standards…

How would it tweak Chrome to address the rising worry about privacy?

In August we found out – and the answer was complicated.

Google said it would change how cookies work in Chrome to make them more private and secure by default. It would also give people more control over their privacy settings (both in Android and on the desktop)

Ben Galbraith, director of Chrome product management, and Justin Schuh, director of Chrome engineering, said in a blog post:

“This change will enable browsers to provide clear information about which sites are setting these cookies, so users can make informed choices about how their data is used.”

But Google also stressed that blocking cookies completely isn’t the solution.

Its argument is that if tracking companies can’t use cookies, they will switch to another technique called fingerprinting.

This method harvests multiple data points about a person – browser version, fonts installed, extensions active, screen size etc – to generate a ‘fingerprint’ that identifies a particular device.

Google believes fingerprinting is bad for privacy. It says that users can at least clear their cookies. They have no control over fingerprinting.

Predictably, many people have criticised Google’s approach. They have two main objections.

1. Google is making the user do the work

Google says it wants to give users the power to change their privacy settings. Critics say most people won’t understand these tools – or won’t bother to use them.

2. Google will benefit from less competition

Google wants to restrict ‘third-party’ cookies (installed by ad tracking companies) much more than ‘first party’ cookies (installed by the owner of the site being visited). This sounds fair. But experts say Google will gain from this. Why? Because Google is a powerful first-party itself – on services like Gmail. Critics argue a third party ban would strengthen Google’s own ad business at the expense of third parties.

Ultimately, of course, this debate is all about money – and what kind of advertising works best.

After all, the only reason for having all these tracking tools is that they work, right?

But do they?

Google says yes. It published a study suggesting publishers’ ad revenues declined in value by 52 percent when they don’t use cookies.

Others disagree. They say ads don’t need to track people to work. They point to examples such as that of the New York Times. Last year, it switched its international edition web site from tracking-based ads to contextual ones.

In other words, it just served ads that are related to the subject matter and location of the site. It took no account of the individual user’s behaviour or demographics.

It said there was no drop in ad revenues as a result.

For the next few years, privacy looks set to remain a big talking point. It might change the way the web works completely. Or it could remain a niche concern that most people ignore. We will see.

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