The US government is preparing to make its case in courts over Google’s alleged anti-competitive practices, particularly on the Internet. While it may already have its arguments prepared, the Justice Department may still be considering what steps it will require Google to take, presuming it wins its case. One of those may be to split up the company, which is already just a subsidiary of the bigger Alphabet, which includes selling off the most-used web browser in the market, Chrome.
The DOJ’s upcoming antitrust lawsuit against Google really revolves more around its alleged monopoly and unfair advantage in digital advertising, a position recently echoed by the House Judiciary Committee. As part of its preparations, it has asked feedback from rivals and third-parties on what fixes have to be made to curb Google’s immense power. One such step would be to split it up and Chrome’s name came up as one of those properties outside of advertising that needed to go.
While not directly involved in Google’s advertising business, it’s hard to deny that Chrome contributes immensely to Google’s position and influence on the Web. As the most-used browser today, websites have to pretty much play by the rules Google imposes through Chrome features as well as through “industry-wide” campaigns and coalitions. This, in turn, helps Google push its own advertising platform forward as the reference implementation of how ads should behave.
That said, the DOJ’s case, which is expected to be formally filed within the next few weeks, won’t be an easy one, especially if state attorneys general feel the government is still unprepared for a legal battle with the tech giant. The court of popular opinion, at least among regulators and lawmakers, does seem to at least side with the general view of how Big Tech may have overstepped their boundaries.
Google will also face an uphill battle, especially if the proposal to sell off Chrome comes up. It could, however, argue how disrupting this part of its operations could prove destructive to the Web, considering how many businesses, apps, and services have been tied not just to the Chrome web browser but to Chrome OS as well as its open source Chromium base.
Firefox offers the speed and convenience of Chrome—and protects you from prying eyes.
The web browser has become the central app on today’s computers. It’s where people check email and social media, message friends, read news, play videos and music, attend school, do office work, and have socially distanced online meetups. You can learn a lot about someone from what happens in their browser, and dozens of companies do just that with cookies and other tracking technology that build up advertising profiles. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Google’s Chrome browser is fast and efficient. But Chrome has conflicting loyalties between its users and a parent company that is the world’s largest advertising firm. That’s not to say that Google is standing still. The new Chrome 86 includes an impressive list of security upgrades around areas such as password management and preventing harmful downloads. But privacy reforms still lag. For instance, Chrome has yet to disable third-party tracking cookies, although Google says it intends to in coming years.
But you don’t have to wait for Google. Firefox, a privacy-focused browser from the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, already blocks third-party cookies and a wide range of other tracking technologies. Firefox also offers many bonus features, such as the Pocket web-clipping tool and the ability to reformat web pages, so they are easier to read.
Mozilla has demonstrated a years-long commitment to its users as an alternative to big tech that puts people’s privacy and security ahead of everything else. Those efforts have accelerated in the past few years with the development of aggressive but user-friendly anti-tracking technologies, which helped Mozilla earn a nod as one of Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies of 2019.
While that tech is still in its infancy, Mozilla also just made some concrete privacy improvements by upgrading its Enhanced Tracking Protection to more aggressively block snoops on the desktop. And for Apple users, Firefox is now a better alternative on mobile devices. The new iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 now let you replace Safari as the primary browser, so that links from email or other apps can automatically open in mobile Firefox.
Yet for all the new features Firefox brings, the transition from Chrome (or another browser) is a cinch. In minutes, you can be up and running with a new browser that offers all the conveniences of Chrome, along with better privacy.
If you’ve been putting of switching browsers out of laziness, we’ve got a handy guide to help you get set up. We’ll take you through the process of switching to Firefox and discovering key new features, including all of Firefox’s security and privacy services. Some, such as Pocket, you will access by clicking icons that appear along the top of the browser. Others you’ll reach by clicking on the “hamburger” button of three horizontal lines in the right-hand corner of the browser window and clicking through the popup menu.
INSTALLING, IMPORTING, AND SYNCING
After you download and install Firefox, it’s time to import key information like bookmarks and website logins from Chrome. This is the deepest rabbit hole you’ll have to go down when setting up Firefox.
First, click the three-line hamburger button and select Library. Next, click Bookmarks, then scroll to the bottom of the window and click Show All Bookmarks to open the Library window. Now click the third button from the left at the top of the window (featuring up and down arrows) and click Import Data from Another Browser. Follow the instructions to import your choice of cookies, browsing history, saved logins, and/or bookmarks from your old browser. To get a fresh start, free of any trackers, uncheck Cookies before the import.
Looking just to the left of the hamburger button you’ll come to a circular icon representing a person’s head and shoulders. This takes you to your Firefox account. By signing up for Mozilla’s free cloud service, you can sync all aspects of your browsing—such as bookmarks and history, or even open tabs—over the internet to other computers or mobile devices running Firefox. This account also enables you to use some cloud-based security features I’ll describe in a moment.
FIREFOX’S KEY PRIVACY AND SECURITY ENHANCEMENTS
The top reason to switch to Firefox is for its enhanced privacy. Starting at the hamburger icon in the upper right of the browser, those features begin to emerge.
Encrypted DNS lookups
When you start using Firefox, you’ll see a popup pinned to the hamburger button that alerts you to the use of encrypted DNS lookups. Here’s what that means: Whenever you type in a site URL like “amazon.com,” your browser has to check something called the domain name system (DNS) to see what numerical IP address corresponds to the site name you’ve entered. Typically these lookups are unencrypted, potentially allowing an internet service provider (ISP) or hacker to retrieve a list of all the sites that you visit. Chrome encrypts DNS requests if your ISP offers the capability. Firefox is more aggressive, automatically routing all DNS requests to an encrypted service, regardless of the ISP you use.
Protections Dashboard for privacy overview
Click the hamburger icon, and one of the first items you see is the Protections Dashboard. This takes you to the heart of Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection, with a tally of all the trackers that the browser has blocked so far, and descriptions of how they work. This includes third-party (or cross-site) cookies: small files that reside in your browser and report the sites you visit back to marketers. Firefox also blocks tracking code in online ads, as well as “cryptominer” scripts that commandeer your computer to generate cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin. Finally, the browser blocks fingerprinting, which collects specific computer and web browser settings, such as the plug-ins installed, to develop an identifier for advertisers. (Enhanced Tracking Protection is enabled by default on the Firefox Android and iOS apps, too.)
To see what Firefox has blocked on the current web page, click the shied icon that appears just to the left of the address bar at the top of the browser window. (The icon turns from gray to purple when content is blocked.) A popup provides details on the specific trackers that have been blocked.
Firefox Monitor for data breaches
Right below the Enhanced Tracking Protection summary, you will see an invitation to sign up for Firefox Monitor. It checks your email address against a database of emails that have been leaked (often along with passwords and other data) in security breaches over the years. If you sign up, a summary of breaches involving your email appears on the dashboard page. Now that you know what accounts have been compromised, you can change your login for the breached service, or shut down the account, to insure that hackers can no longer access it.
Lockwise password manager
The final element on the protections dashboard is Firefox’s password manager, Lockwise. By default, Firefox offers to save any username/password logins you enter on web sites. These go into Lockwise, along with any logins you may have imported from your previous browser when you set up Firefox. If you sign up for a new online account, Lockwise will offer to generate and remember a super-secure password when you right-click the password field on the website. Lockwise has Android and iOS/iPadOS apps, so you can sync logins through your Firefox account across all your devices.
Facebook Container limits social network tracking
The hamburger icon menu has a lot more options, and one more is especially worth mentioning: Add-ons. Click on this, and search for the Facebook Container. This extension is designed to guard against the way that the social network tracks you across the web. For instance, those like and share buttons that appear on many web pages register that you visited the site featuring them, even if you never press the button. Facebook also places cookies to see if you visit the sites of its advertisers. The Facebook Container doesn’t affect your experience on Facebook itself, but it blocks Facebook’s tracking tools on all other sites.
SWITCHING YOUR SEARCH ENGINE
Switching from Chrome to Firefox doesn’t completely free you from Google, as it’s the default search engine for Firefox. Even with Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection, Google can still track you through your IP address and through cookies that Google places when you use its search engine. (Firefox doesn’t block the “first-party cookies” placed by the web site you are visiting, only third-party cookies placed by outside advertisers.) But you can change the default search engine to DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track your activity over time to build advertising profiles.
Start by typing any term into the address bar. A dropdown menu previewing results appears. At the bottom right corner of the dropdown is a gear icon. Click it to reach Firefox’s search preferences page. Under “Default Search Engine,” click the down arrow to open the dropdown menu, and select DuckDuckGo from the choices.
FIREFOX’S HANDY FEATURES
The switch to Firefox rewards you not only with better privacy but with several handy usability features. Let’s take a tour of a few, beginning right in the address bar.
Reader View’s streamlined article mode
On certain pages, such as newspaper articles, an icon representing a printed page appears just to the right of the page URL. Click this to enter Reader View, which strips away ads, navigation menus, sidebars, and other extraneous elements to give you a clean page for easy reading or printing. A toolbar to the left provides several viewing options. Clicking the “Aa” icon allows you to change font style and size, paragraph and line spacing, and the page color. Click the headphones icon to hear the article read aloud. (Reader View, without dictation, is also available in the Firefox Android and iOS apps.)
Pocket web clipping
To the right of the address bar you will see an icon of a shield with a chevron pattern. This activates Pocket. Just press the button to save a copy of the web page you are viewing to your Pocket account. You can tag each clipping with one or more keywords to organize your sources. It’s also a convenient way to save an article you want to read later, when you have more time (including on Pocket’s free mobile apps).
Sending tabs to another device
If you use your Firefox account to sync multiple devices, you can use this handy feature to send the tab you are viewing to another device. For instance, you can start reading an article at your computer and finish it on your phone’s Firefox browser, or vice-versa. To send a tab from the desktop browser, click the Firefox Account button in the upper-right of the browser window and select Send Tab to Device.
Chrome is the biggest web browser. Use these extensions to get it to work for you
Chrome’s web store is full of little digital gadgets to help make your web browsing simpler, more productive, and more enjoyable. Here are our top eight extensions that tick those boxes and are all downloadable for free in a matter of moments.
LastPass means you only have to remember one password to keep all your other login details together in one place. It will also help keep your other accounts secure by generating super secure passwords that it will fill in automatically as needed. There’s space for notes for offline information that you want to be well protected too. Install it here.
When you simply have to know the precise hue of something online, Colorzilla’s eyedropper can check any pixel and tell you. You can then paste that colour’s data into another programme or adjust the values and save it within the extension for future reference. It’s an invaluable extension for digital design work. Get the extension here.
When finding the source of a picture’s proving difficult, try TinEye’s reverse image search. It focuses on the closest possible matches instead of just similarity, making it useful for finding originals, higher resolution versions, or checking for online fakes. The extension itself makes searches available in only a couple of clicks. Install TinEye’s Chrome extension from here.
For those who want to read academic papers without stumping up for subscription fees. As you look for research, this extension searches for free (and completely legal) versions of the same articles, and pops into view if it finds a match. A potential saver of both time and money. Get it here.
Save to Pocket/Instapaper
Either of these extensions will let you to save web pages and articles for reading on your synced devices later, even without an internet connection. Both have premium versions too, if you want to support the developers and get extra features in return. Get Pocket and Instapaper’s extension here.
The Great Suspender
It’s all too easy to open absurd numbers of tabs in your browser. The Great Suspender helps to manage your computer’s performance by stopping abandoned tabs until you click back on them. There is a lot of room for configuration too, the extension able to keep certain sites open indefinitely, or unload others after a shorter period of time. Install it here.
It’s happened to all of us. One bad key press and you’re on the previous webpage and all the info you were just typing into that form has disappeared. This simple extension stops your backspace key from taking you to the previous page, saving you from wasted time and frustration. Get it here.
Websites that run annoying ads such as pop-ups may find all ads blocked by Google’s Chrome browser starting next year.
The digital-ad giant’s announcement comes as hundreds of millions of internet users have already installed ad blockers on their desktop computers and phones to combat ads that track them and make browsing sites difficult.
These blockers threaten websites that rely on digital ads for revenue. Google’s version will allow ads as long as websites follow industry-created guidelines and minimize certain types of ads that consumers really hate. That includes pop-up ads, huge ads that don’t go away when visitors scroll down a page and video ads that start playing automatically with the sound on.
Google says the feature will be turned on by default, and users can turn it off. It’ll work on both the desktop and mobile versions of Chrome.
Google says that even ads it sells will be blocked on websites that don’t get rid of annoying types of ads.
But there might not be vast changes online triggered by the popular browser’s efforts. It’s a “small number of websites that are disproportionately responsible for annoying user experiences,” Google spokeswoman Suzanne Blackburn said.
“I’m sure there are some publishers who will get hurt,” said Brian Wieser, an ad analyst with Pivotal Research Group. But in the long term, he says, cracking down on irritating ads should make the internet experience better, encouraging people to visit sites and click on links. That, in turn, benefits Google.
The company is also starting a program that could help publishers deal with users who have downloaded popular ad blockers. Some individual websites have come up with their own countermeasures. Forbes.com, for example, won’t let you read stories without disabling your ad blocker or logging in with Facebook or Google accounts, so the site can track you.
Google would work with websites to set up messages telling users to disable their blockers for the site or pay for a version of it with no ads. It’ll take a 10 percent cut of those payments.
To protect its ad business, Google has tried to improve user experiences in other ways. It launched a way for websites to load faster on phones. And it used its sway as the dominant search engine to push companies to make their sites mobile-friendly. Such sites show up higher in mobile searches.
Google also has tried to address advertisers’ concerns about their ads running next to offensive content by banning its ads from some objectionable videos on YouTube, like those that promote discrimination or advocate illegal drug use. Google also won’t place its ads on web pages with objectionable content — porn, for example, and or sites that promote suicide or violence.
Facebook, too, is trying to make links from inside its universe less spammy for users. It says it’s trying to cut down on posts and ads in the news feed that lead to junky pages with “little substantive content” and “disruptive, shocking or malicious ads.”
Image: Google’s ad blocker will allow ads as long as websites follow industry-created guidelinesLeon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
Cheering, perhaps, but each group will have been doing so for different reasons and with little enthusiasm.
Notice we said control – not blocking. But before untangling the difference, let’s acknowledge why ad-blocking has become so appealing: visiting many websites often means being swarmed by ad and tracking systems that noticeably slow browsing performance.
Publishers claim this is a fringe problem caused by aggressive companies getting carried away, but that’s not entirely true. There are plenty of mainstream sites that happily leave users in the slow lane.
These frustrating experiences can lead some people to block all ads – taking a big toll on the content creators, journalists, web developers and videographers who depend on ads to fund their content creation.
So, people start using ad blockers which block out almost everything, encouraging publishers to deploy anti-blocking technology which simply annoys readers even more.
Without giving a history lesson, suffice it to say that the model’s futility occurred to ad-blocking companies, which also needed revenue. Their solution was to let some advertisers pay not to be blocked.
This went down badly with many publishers, who felt they were being extorted, an argument that continues to this day. Savvy users responded by disabling whitelisting anyway.
Google’s alternative is slightly different and has two elements. The first is to allow Chrome to control ads that don’t adhere to rules agreed by the industry Coalition for Better Ads.
Arguably, this isn’t blocking because it only stops ads that transgress in very specific ways, such as auto-playing videos, prestitial ads with countdown timers (which block a homepage for a given period) and sticky ads (which persist even after scrolling).
It won’t address the wider issue of the way ads drain performance or – the other reason ad-blockers became popular – stop users from being tracked across websites to the detriment of their privacy and, sometimes, their security.
Given this, the second element Google, Funding Choices, might be particularly galling. Still in limited beta, this is a way to charge users who refuse to turn off their ad-blocker. The revenue from this, stored in a Google digital wallet, will be split between the publisher and – you guessed it – Google.
Doubtless, a few publishers will see this as a handy revenue stream, assuming enough bother to enable it. It might raise pennies.
For most, however, it will stick in the craw for publishers to pay Google at all, the very company many privately blame for using its search engine algorithms, advertising system and dominance of mobiles to slowly drain their brands of importance – and revenue.
To date, only one other mainstream browser maker, Opera, has dabbled with integrated ad blocking. Google’s plans are more potent even if its ad control tech ends up as a halfway house that merely enforces sanity on publishers.
What it can’t yet do is stop people using ad-blockers without driving them away from Chrome itself. For now, ad-blockers remain the last stand of browser users who refuse to cede all control.