A lot happens when you browse the internet. Ostensibly you’re just looking at a website, but behind the scenes the page has loaded over 30 external scripts. Most are there to provide you with a more relevant experience – by which I mean, targeted ads.
The good news is that you can install a browser extension to block undesirable content (white-listing sites you wish to support like Lifehacker, of course.) The bad news is that Google is onto this, and has proposed changes to its web browser that will limit your future ability to use those ad blockers.
In a recent proposal, Google describes an overhaul of its browser application interface that would disable current content-blocking extensions. Developers would be required to re-write them, and ultimately ad-blockers could become weaker and less flexible.
A browser is not just a window to the web, but an agent that acts on behalf of the user. It communicates information about a person’s machine to remote servers so that websites can deliver the appropriate experience, a process known as content negotiation. Once a site has loaded, the page may instruct the browser to fetch and execute additional requests. For example, many publishers include scripts that run a tracker, a piece of code that collects identifying information that it uploads to an ad server.
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.