Google, browsers and the illusion of choice


It’s Google’s world, which means we’re always leaking data to them.

Some of us assiduously search for other options. But it’s not easy.

Two reasons: We don’t have a firm grasp of the size of the elephant we’re confronting, and secondly, we don’t really understand what we’re doing when we’re online. What data are we leaking, and how, and what does that mean? Is it something we should be worried about? If we wanted to limit our exposure to any one conglomerate, how would we go about it?

Inspired by the recent publication (PDF, as are many of the links in this piece) of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority on ‘Online platforms and digital advertising’ , I thought I’d take a stab at prodding at least part of this animal.

Let’s take a look at browsers.

At least on the desktop (meaning laptops, PCs, anything that’s not a small-screen device) we spend a lot of time in the browser. (The opposite is true on mobile: eMarketer found in 2019 that 90% of time on mobile is spent in apps, rather than the browser. But as you’ll see, that doesn’t really help.)

So where does Google sit in all this?

You can have any colour you like, so long as it’s chrome

Google launched its Chrome browser in September 2008. At that point it seemed a somewhat silly thing to do — as the chart below shows, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer dominated the browser world (by virtue of Windows, which was on 90% or more of computers) and to a lesser extent Mozilla Firefox (the data below probably exaggerates its market share around that time).

Google made a splash when they launched the browser (Sundar Pichai headed the team) but played it carefully, saying that they would work with the Open Source community, were just continuing on their path, and promised the browser would just get out of people’s way: “The web gets better with more options and innovation,” Sundar was quoted as saying. “Google Chrome is another option, and we hope it contributes to making the web even better.”

Sure. I was excited too, and like everyone else went ahead and installed it, feeling that I was contributing to an exciting, and exclusive, new way of browsing.

So how do things look, 12 years on? It’s no longer exactly ‘another option’. It’s the option:

You can see how Microsoft (orange), asleep at the controls, allows Google (blue) to come from nothing and within a few years completely destroy it — and Firefox (green) for that matter. Where Microsoft had destroyed Netscape, so Google destroyed it. 

So Google has what it wants. But what does it get with this browser dominance?

Data. Lots of it. Google has an insatiable appetite for your data, and has tweaked its privacy policy to ensure that it’s collecting as much of your data as it can across everything you do.

In 2012 Google introduced a policy that deliberately and explicitly connected all an individual’s data across all its platforms and services. Here’s how the Competition Law Forum (CLF) at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law put it in a submission to the CMA: “In 2012 Google announced the introduction of a new privacy policy that would encompass all the services Google offers, including popular services such as YouTube, Chrome, Google Play and Google Maps, replacing the previous individual’s policies that governed each service. Said privacy policy authorises Google to gather detailed personal data from any of those services and combine it for the purposes listed therein, including to create consumer profiles that are valuable for advertising purposes.”

Combining all this data is exactly what advertisers want, and the way that Google maximises the value it extracts from you. That’s why it has so many services — they are touchpoints, places where Google can, effectively, spy on you and know where you are, what you’re doing, and crucially what you want or intend to do. If you don’t think you use much of Google’s services, check out this site which lists all their products and services. You might be surprised.

Whatever browser you use, we got you covered

Here are some things that happen irrespective of what browser you’re using (if you’re on Android see below):

  • If you use any Google tool that requires your signing in, then it will be able to track your activities, and match it to your profile.
  • Even if you’re not signed in, Google will still collect information via the browser (or application, or device) you’re using.
  • If you sign in to any Google service, then you will be automatically signed in to all other Google services — or services you’re using via Google’s single-sign on, whether or not you have them open on your device.

Chrome is where the heart is

And if you’re specifically using Chrome:

Signing in to any Google service

If you sign on to any Google service in Chrome, Google will automatically sign you in to the browser, thus linking, or at least potentially linking, everything you do in that browser to your profile. 1

Clearing your cache and going Incognito

Even if you clear your browser cache, Google can still track you via a persistent identifier (called an X-client-Data header) in Chrome. According to a lawsuit this identifier is within the browser Google can track you even in Incognito (private) mode. “In short, if you are using Google’s Chrome browser, Google’s code in that browser sends information back to Google’s servers identifying the specific, individual browser (associated with you) that is viewing any Webpage that has implemented Ad Manager, Google Analytics, the Google Button, Google Approved Pixels, etc,” the lawsuit claims.

A report on the lawsuit is here. 2

Passive data

While this piece (and the data) is mainly about Chrome on the desktop, it appears that Chrome on the mobile phone (in Android) is sending “data to Google even in the absence of any user interaction,” according to Douglas Schmidt of Vanderbilt University, quoted in the above lawsuit. “Our experiments show that a dormant, stationary Android phone (with Chrome active in the background) communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period, or at an average of 14 data communications per hour.”

A separate report by Digital Content Next in 2018 found that two thirds of information “collected or inferred by Google through an Android phone and the Chrome browser was done through ‘passive’ methods, that is where an application is set up to gather information while it is running, possibly without the user’s knowledge.” 3

Sludge techniques

In the past — I couldn’t replicate this, so I’m not sure it still happens — Google would try to deter users from changing their default search engine in Chrome. This according to a submission by ‘privacy-priority’ search engine DuckDuckGo to the CMA. (DuckDuckGo uses Microsoft’s search engine Bing.)

Don’t take my word for it

The report just issued by the CMA concludes: “Google has developed unrivalled access to data through its operation of the largest browser (Chrome) and the Android mobile operating system. “4

The report goes further. While it acknowledges that Google has said it is considering phasing out third-party cookies, which have become a target for those seeking to increase browsing privacy, this may end up making Google’s position even stronger. “(T)hrough its control over the leading web browser (Chrome) and mobile OS (Android), Google can also influence standards (such as support for third- party cookies) that affect rivals’ ability to collect and use targeting data (eg users’ browsing behaviour).” 5

Google hasn’t been great about explaining itself

Google has had a chance to say its piece to the group putting together the report. But you can’t help feeling they still don’t quite get it. Here’s a screenshot from a ‘non-confidential’ version of their submitted reply. If you have to black out a portion of a reply about the mode that in theory protects your users from snooping the most, you can’t blame them for still feeling a bit icky:

Successful in doing what? Persuading users they’re safe when they’re not? In collecting data when they think they’re not? Why would this bit be blacked out? It doesn’t seem like it’s hiding a commercial secret. Weird.

The Chromium wedge

It should be pointed out, as the CMA has, that Google has an extra lever: its control of Chromium, the engine on which Chrome is built. Microsoft, Opera and Vivaldi are all built on Chromium, open source software that Google controls, and which also powers the Chromium OS, the operating system which runs a dozen or more low-power laptops called Chromebooks made by Samsung, Asus, Acer, HP, Toshiba, Lenovo and Google itself.

You’ll see a list of them if you visit that link. But tf you visit the Chromium home page itself, you won’t see links to other browsers running Chromium. Other than Google’s own:

You can’t help wondering, given Google’s past in slowly building up dominant positions, firstly in search, and then in the browser, that they’re trying to do something similar with the computer operating system. Yes, Chromium is pretty piddling when it compares to Windows of MacOS, but that’s not the point. With Chromium the browser they now have leverage over Microsoft — who would have thought that? — the minor players like Vivaldi and Opera. As I will explain elsewhere they have control over other players in different ways. Just because they haven’t used that leverage doesn’t mean they can’t. Remember how they eviscerated RSS by controlling the RSS Reader market? I do.

(I will be exploring Chromium in a future post but it’s worth pointing out that Chromium underpins many apps and ads beyond the browser. According to Ltd, a mobile and data consultancy which submitted its own findings to the CMA: “Chromium is everywhere. Beyond classic web browsers including Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, or Samsung Browser, Chromium underpins many applications and advertising. For example, a web page or advert displayed withing the Facebook application is displayed using Chromium. An advert tapped within an Android application appears within a Chromium controlled experience.”

Bottom line

I’ve loved Google products for a long time, and I still use a lot of them. And as a journalist I found Google a much easier company to deal with than the other US tech giants. But I never got useful answers out of them when things got tricky, and as this topic highlights, they’ve never been properly candid about what data is being collected and how it’s being used. I don’t pretend this little stick-prod is going to pry anything useful out of them, or really help you make a decision about whether to change your online behaviour. Neither do I pretend their rivals are any better.

But I want to give a clap or two the CMA for at least trying to figure some of this stuff out and to map some of the ecosystem that generates all this money (including Facebook, which I’ll take a look at in future columns.) It’s a shame the UK is not part of the European Union anymore. A report like that with the EU behind it could have started some waves.

Transparency: In my role at Cleft Stick, I have done consulting work for Microsoft, a competitor to Google on some of these issues, on unrelated issues. I have no NDAs that I believe would affect my point of view.

  1. GOOGLE ADVERTISING TOOLS (FORMERLY DOUBLECLICK) OVERVIEW Last Updated October 1, 2019, paper prepared by Oracle
  2. Google Sundar Pichai has explained it in a letter to the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee: “When a user conducts a search on Google in Chrome Incognito and signed-out modes, we set a cookie to correlate searches conducted in the same Incognito window during the same browsing session… We will, however, use certain factors … such as the browser type, language, time of search, location (or an estimation of location), and prior browser session searches, to improve Search ranking relevance for the user’s query.”
  3. From the DuckDuckGo submission, see above
  4. Paragraph 7:61
  5. Appendix 7, Paragraph 114. Others have pointed out that in fact phasing out third party cookies would strengthen Google (and Facebook).

2011: Year of The Media App

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I predict this year that we’ll settle on a way to make people pay for stuff they so far have proven reluctant to pay for—namely information. This won’t be done by pay walls, exactly, but by what we’re now calling apps. Apps are applications that people seem very willing to pay for when they’re doing it from a device that isn’t a desktop computer.

So people are buying these things because what’s a buck when you know you can get to hurl Angry Birds onto flimsy structures sheltering evil pigs on your device in a couple of seconds? Or listen to Yesterday on your iPod Touch a few seconds after buying it?

Compare this with the laborious process of signing up for an online subscription, or having to download, install and pay for some software and then have to enter a serial number longer than most emails you’ve written.

Others are now trying this route. Google has the Android Marketplace, which lets you do more or less the same thing. In fact, it’s even easier—you don’t get prompted for your password when you buy something. And now they’re trying something on your computer: their own browser, Chrome, now have apps which you can buy or get for free. (Google’s own operating system, Chrome OS, will revolve around these apps.)

In fact these aren’t really anything new—they’re what we might call web-services which are accessible via a website, rather than by downloading software. But by packaging them up as apps Google make it easier for us to get at them and, crucially, break down our resistance to buying something online.

This is how we’ll pay for news in the future. Smart companies like The Economist will give the print edition away free with the iPad version, or vice versa, since we’ll start resisting the idea that we have to pay twice for the same information, whether it’s all glitzy and interactive or not. We will expect to be rewarded for paying for something we know we can get from somewhere else if we tried hard enough. If you’re a news organization use whatever lure you can think of to get the reader back into the paying habit again.

This is the point of the payment process. It has to be easier than getting the information/music/entertainment/book through another means. If I find a book for my Kindle ereader on Amazon I’ll check to see whether there’s a cheaper version—which there quite often is. If it’s under ten bucks I’ll buy it. If not, I’ll read the reviews below to see whether there is a free version somewhere—which is sometimes possible. If there isn’t, I’ll check out Google books to see whether the chapters I’m interested in are there.

OK, I’m a cheapskate. But my thinking is basically this: $10 is my threshold for an eBook. It might be more if I got access to a physical version, or was able to clip bits from it and store it somewhere else. But I’m not, so I won’t pay more than that. Moreover, I don’t want to be the mug who pays for something others get for free.

Everyone else has their own logic, but they’re probably not dissimilar to mine. We pay for things if we think the price is right for the convenience, and if we think that we’re not being suckered—which means that other people aren’t shelling out for it.

This is basically micropayments. It’s what we’d been hoping would happen for some time, and it took Apple’s megalomania and micromanagement to get us there. Now we’re nearly there, but we could still mess up. Some newspapers try to charge us for single articles, for example, misunderstanding that micropayment doesn’t mean microproduct. I don’t want to pay every time I visit your site: I want to pay for something that gets me seamless access to your product.

In other words, we’re paying for not having to pay (or register, or download, or enter codes, or any of that kind of nonsense.) This is why the term pay wall is so revealing—and why it’s doomed as a concept. We’re not buying information with our iPhone or Android app, we’re buying frictionless access to something—an icon on our display that may be a shortcut to a web page, or open an application,  we don’t care. All we care about is that it gets us to where we want to go, when we want to go there.

We’ve some ways to go before this works well. I can’t stand the idea that my Kindle book doesn’t belong to me in the way a real book does, and I refuse to buy any music that I can’t move around as I wish. I succumbed to buying some apps for an iPad I borrowed but Steve Jobs will rue the day if I can’t easily move them onto another iDevice if I ever end up getting one.

But the good thing is that we’ve found a way to make this palatable to people, and I am optimistic that the media, booksellers, music sellers and web developers can turn this into revenue streams that keep them going.