Tag: browsers

Thinking outside the browser

Even if you’re on a phone, chances are you’re reading this in a browser.

Chances are also that most of what you do online is through a browser.

Hell, many—maybe even most—of the apps you use on your phone use the Webkit browser engine. Meaning they’re browsers too.

And, of course, I’m writing this in a browser.

Two problems with this:

  1. Browsers are clients, which are by design subordinate to servers.
  2. There is a lot that can’t be done with a browser.

So let’s start with subordination.

While the Internet at its base is a word-wide collection of peers, the Web that runs on it is a collection of servers to which we are mere clients. That’s because the Web was was built on an old mainframe model of computing called client-server. This is actually more of a calf-cow arrangement than a peer-to-peer one:

So, while we “go to” or “visit” a website, we actually don’t go anywhere. Instead we request a file. Even when you’re watching or listening to a stream, what’s actually happening is a file unfurling itself into your browser.

What you expect when you go to a website is typically the file called a page. You also expect that page will bring a payload of other files providing graphics, video clips or whatever. You might also expect the site to remember that you’ve been there before, or that you’re a subscriber to the site’s services.

You may also understand that the site remembers you because your browser carries a “cookie” the site put there, to helps the site remember what’s called “state,” so the browser and the site can renew their acquaintance. This is what Lou Montulli  meant the cookie to do when he invented it in 1994. Lou thought it up because the client-server design puts most agency on the server side, and in the dial-up world of the time, that made the most sense.

Alas, even though we now live in a world where there can be boundless intelligence on the individual’s side, and there is far more capacious communication bandwidth between network nodes, damn near everyone continues to presume a near-absolute power asymmetry between clients and servers, calves and cows, people and sites. It’s also why today when you go to a site and it asks you to accept its use of cookies, something unknown to you (presumably—you can’t tell) remembers that “agreement” and its settings, and you don’t—even though there is no reason why you shouldn’t or couldn’t. It doesn’t even occur to the inventors and maintainers of cookie acceptance systems that a mere “user” should have any way to record, revisit or audit the “agreement.” All they want is what the law now requires of them: your “consent.”

This near-absolute power asymmetry between the Web’s calves and cows is also why you typically get a vast payload of spyware when your browser simply asks to see whatever it is you actually want from the website.  To see how big that payload can be, I highly recommend a tool called PageXray, from Fou Analytics, run by Dr. Augustine Fou (aka @acfou). For a test run, try PageXray on the Daily Mail’s U.S. home page, and you’ll see that you’re also getting this huge payload of stuff you didn’t ask for:

Adserver Requests: 756
Tracking Requests: 492
Other Requests: 184

The visualization looks like this:

This is how, as Richard Whitt perfectly puts it, “the browser is actually browsing us.”

All those requests, most of which are for personal data of some kind, come in the form of cookies and similar files. The visual above shows how information about you fans out to a near countless number of third parties and dependents on those. And, while these cookies are stored by your browser, they are meant to be readable only by the server or one or more of its third parties.

This is the icky heart of the e-commerce “ecosystem” today.

By the way, and to be fair, two of the browsers in the graphic above—Epic and Tor—by default disclose as little as possible about you and your equipment to the sites you visit. Others have privacy features and settings. But getting past the whole calf-cow system is the real problem we need to solve.

Now let’s look at what can’t be done with a browser. If you think the answer is nothing, you’re stuck inside the browser box. If you think the answer is something, tell us what it is.

We have some ideas. But first we’d like to hear from you.


Cross-posted at the Customer Commons blog, here.

The Castle Doctrine

home castle

The Castle doctrine has been around a long time. Cicero (106–43 BCE) wrote, “What more sacred, what more strongly guarded by every holy feeling, than a man’s own home?” In Book 4, Chapter 16 of his Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone (1723–1780 CE) added, “And the law of England has so particular and tender a regard to the immunity of a man’s house, that it stiles it his castle, and will never suffer it to be violated with impunity: agreeing herein with the sentiments of ancient Rome…”

Since you’re reading this online, let me ask, what’s your house here? What sacred space do you strongly guard, and never suffer to be violated with impunity?

At the very least, it should be your browser.

But, unless you’re running tracking protection in the browser you’re using right now, companies you’ve never heard of (and some you have) are watching you read this, and eager to use or sell personal data about you, so you can be delivered the human behavior hack called “interest based advertising.”

Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, has a term for this:surveillance capitalism, defined as “a wholly new subspecies of capitalism in which profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behavior.”

Almost across the board, advertising-supported publishers have handed their business over to adtech, the surveillance-based (they call it “interactive”) wing of advertising. Adtech doesn’t see your browser as a sacred personal space, but instead as a shopping cart with ad space that you push around from site to site.

So here is a helpful fact: we don’t go anywhere when we use our browsers. Our browser homes are in our computers, laptops and mobile devices. When we “visit” a web page or site with our browsers, we actually just request its contents (using the hypertext protocol called http or https).

In no case do we consciously ask to be spied on, or abused by content we didn’t ask for or expect. That’s why we have every right to field-strip out anything we don’t want when it arrives at our browsers’ doors.

The castle doctrine is what hundreds of millions of us practice when we use tracking protection and ad blockers. It is what called the new Brave browser into the marketplace. It’s why Mozilla has been cranking up privacy protections with every new version of Firefox . It’s why Apple’s new content blocking feature treats adtech the way chemo treats cancer. It’s why respectful publishers will comply with CHEDDAR. It’s why Customer Commons is becoming the place to choose No Trespassing signs potential intruders will obey. And it’s why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers.

The job of every entity I named in the last paragraph — and every other one in a position to improve personal privacy online — is to bring as much respect to the castle doctrine in the virtual world as we’ve had in the physical one for more than two thousand years.

It should help to remember that it’s still early. We’ve only had commercial activity on the Internet since April 1995. But we’ve also waited long enough. Let’s finish making our homes online the safe places they should have been in the first place.

 

How customers can debug business with one line of code

744px-Olive_branch.svg

Four years ago, I posted An olive branch to advertising here. It began,

Online advertising has a couple of big problems that could possibly be turned into opportunities. One is Do Not Track, or DNT. The other is blocking of ads and/or tracking.

Publishers and the advertising business either attacked or ignored Do Not Track, which was too bad, because the ideas we had for making it work might have prevented the problem those businesses now have with ad blocking.

According to the latest PageFair/Adobe study,  the number of people blocking ads passed 200 million last May, with double-digit increases in adoption, worldwide. Tracking protection is also gaining in popularity.

While those solutions provide individuals with agency and scale, they don’t work for publishers. Not yet, anyway.

What we need is a solution that scales for readers and is friendly to publishers and the kind of advertising readers can welcome—or at least tolerate, in appreciation of how ads sponsor the content they want. This is what we have always had with newspapers, magazines, radio and TV in the offline world, none of which ever tracked anybody anywhere.

So now we offer a solution. It’s a simple preference, which readers can express in code, that says this: Just show me ads that aren’t based on tracking me. Equally simple code can sit on the publishers’ side. Digital handshakes can also happen between the two.

This term will live at Customer Commons, which was designed for that purpose, on the model of Creative Commons (which also came out of work done by folks here at the Berkman Center).  This blog post provides some context.

We’ll be working on that term, its wording , and the code that expresses and agrees to it, next week at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. Monday will be VRM Day. Tuesday through Thursday will be IIW—the Internet Identity Workshop (where ProjectVRM was incubated almost ten years ago). VRM Day is mostly for planning the work we’ll do at IIW. VRM Day is free, and IIW is cheap for three days of actually getting stuff done. (It’s by far the most leveraged conference I know, partly because it’s an unconference: no keynotes, panels or sponsor booths. Just breakouts that participants create, choose and lead.)

If you care about aligning publishing and advertising online with what worked for hundreds of years offline — and driving uninvited surveillance out of business itself — come help us out.

This one term is a first step. There will be many more before we customers get the full respect we deserve from ad-funded businesses online. Each step needs to prove to one business category or another that customers aren’t just followers. Sometimes they need to take the lead.

This is one of those times.  So let’s make it happen.

See you next week.

 

 

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