The Push for Online Privacy
Both within the mainstream media and cybersecurity circles, there is a growing interest in the need for increased online consumer privacy. Lawmakers and industry advocate groups alike are starting to push for congressional oversight that would outline requirements for how companies handle their users’ information.
Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are just a few of those who are commonly in the spotlight for alleged misuse of data. The European Union has been the most progressive with privacy legislation and enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) act in 2018.
GDPR is an EU-based regulatory act that requires companies to disclose when they are collecting personal data from European citizens. The EU’s rules around online privacy and data collection are felt across the globe and have spurred both US advocate groups and lawmakers on both sides of the house to push for similar standards in the United States.
The state of California recently passed the California Consumer Privacy Act, which functions much like GDPR and offers enhanced consumer protection privacy rights for residents of California, but it is not alone. So far, 12 other states in the US have enacted data protection requirements that force companies to establish safeguards that protect consumer information.
Google’s Privacy Resistance History
Despite pressure from both consumers and lawmakers, Google seems to be at least partially resistant to incorporating greater privacy into their ecosystem.
Google recently announced changes to its Chrome browser. Most notably, the company is making a move to ensure 3rd party extensions are more secure. This change, while seemingly noble, is not all positive – especially since it entails crippling an API that is at the heart of many ad blocking extensions. As part of this update, the Chrome browser will block the Declarative Net Request API. This API allows extension authors the ability to log your browsing data and parse out advertising, then use that data to block those ads from being displayed in the browsers. Google is offering another in its place called the Web Request API, but many developers argue that this API will impede their ability to adequately intercept and then block 3rd party advertising.
Even as data is becoming an increasingly hot commodity for targeting online ads, many companies in the browser space are starting to push back against advertising that is both invasive and intrusive.
Apple’s Safari browser has been blocking both desktop ads and autoplay videos since 2017; in 2019, many other players are starting to incorporate more and more privacy into their browser platforms.
New players in the browser space, like the free open-source Brave browser, have been built from the ground up with privacy features as their core offering. The Brave browser blocks ads and website trackers, boasting that doing so not only maintains better privacy but also makes its browser much faster than the competition. The company is also adopting a pay-to-surf business model, allowing users to opt into advertising in exchange for Brave Payments via its blockchain-based Basic Attention Token, known as BAT.
Firefox’s Strategic Play
The Firefox browser, whose market share is a far second from Google Chrome, has been making a lot of changes as of late. It’s not known if Mozilla, the company behind the browser, is acting on pressure from competitor browsers who are more privacy-centric, or if they are strategically incorporating privacy into their browsers in an attempt to take more market share. Regardless of the motivation, the Mozilla Firefox browser has been making a lot of changes as of late that place consumer privacy at the forefront.
The Firefox browser is slowly becoming a formidable option in the privacy browser arena. More recent versions of the browser have included restrictions in its codebase that block third party publishers from tracking your online activity.
According to Mozilla, people are feeling increasingly vulnerable online, hence the need to bolster user protection and anonymity.
Soon, versions of Firefox will block various trackers by default, but Mozilla is not stopping there; last June, Firefox announced they would start to block data from being sent to Google Analytics. This push for added privacy essentially anonymizes Firefox traffic data in Google Analytics.
Firefox’s most recent foray in the privacy space includes the incorporation of an integrated Tor mode.
The Tor network, which allows users to browse the internet anonymously, was first developed in the mid 1990s by the United States Naval Research Laboratory. In 2004, the code was released to the public with support and funding by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The Tor network anonymizes traffic by running it through various Tor servers. Anyone trying to trace your traffic will see traffic coming from various TOR nodes as opposed to seeing it originate from your personal computer.
While Firefox aims to eventually offer native support for TOR, their first proposed iteration would come via a browser extension.
In both the private and commercial sector there is an ever-increasing push for online anonymity. While this push aims to protect consumer data from getting into the wrong hands, it does pose a threat to tech companies whose business models depend on advertising. While some companies remain resistant to these changes, others embrace it as an opportunity to distinguish their products and services from the competition.
Companies like Mozilla are continuing to look for ways to integrate privacy into their ecosystem, ensuring it addresses the concerns of online users. Its plan to incorporate the TOR network into Firefox marks a massive philosophical shift in the way it conducts business.
Meanwhile, new players in the browser development space, such as Brave, are also playing their part to ensure their product meets the increasing demands for more comprehensive online privacy and data security.