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:
- Browsers are clients, which are by design subordinate to servers.
- 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.
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.