It’s a big year for the oozing creep of corporate paternalism and ad-tracking technology online. Google and its subsidiary companies have tightened their grips on the throat of internet innovation, all while employing the now familiar tactic of marketing these things as beneficial for users. Here we’ll review the most significant changes this year, all emphasizing the point that browser privacy tools (like Privacy Badger) are more important than ever.
Manifest V2 to Manifest V3: Final Death of Legacy Chrome Extensions
Chrome, the most popular web browser by all measurements, recently announced the official death date for Manifest V2, hastening the reign of its janky successor, Manifest V3. We've been complaining about this since the start, but here's the gist: the finer details of MV3 have gotten somewhat better over time (namely that it won't completely break all privacy extensions). However, what security benefits it has are bought by limiting what all extensions can do. Chrome could invest in a more robust extension review process. Doing so would protect both innovation and security, but it’s clear that the true intention of this change is somewhere else. Put bluntly: Chrome, a browser built by an advertising company, has positioned itself as the gatekeeper for in-browser privacy tools, the sole arbiter of how they should be designed. Considering that Google’s trackers are present on at least 85% of the top 50,000 websites, contributing to an overall profit of approximately 225 billion dollars in 2022, this is an unsurprising, yet still disappointing, decision.
For what it's worth, Apple's Safari browser imposes similar restrictions to allegedly protect Safari users from malicious extensions. While it’s important to protect users from said malicious extensions, it’s equally important to honor their privacy.
This year also saw the rollout of Google's planned "Privacy Sandbox" project, which also uses a lot of mealy-mouthed marketing to justify its questionable characteristics. While it will finally get rid of third-party cookies, an honestly good move, it is replacing that form of tracking with another called the "Topics API." At best, this reduces the number of parties that are able to track a user through the Chrome browser (though we aren’t the only privacy experts casting doubt toward its so-called benefits). But it limits tracking so it's only done by a single powerful party, Chrome itself, who then gets to dole out its learnings to advertisers that are willing to pay. This is just another step in transforming the browser from a user agent to an advertising agent.
Privacy Badger now disables the Topics API by default.
YouTube Blocking Access for Users With Ad-Blockers
Most recently, people with ad-blockers began to see a petulant message from Youtube when trying to watch a video. The blocking message gave users a countdown until they would no longer be able to use the site unless they disabled their ad-blockers. Privacy and security benefits be damned. YouTube, a Google owned company which saw its own all-time high in third quarter advertising revenue (a meager 8 billion dollars), has no equivocal announcement laden with deceptive language for this one. If you’re on Chrome or a Chromium-based browser, expect YouTube to be broken unless you turn off your ad-blocker.
Privacy Tools > Corporate Paternalism
Obviously this all sucks. User security shouldn’t be bought by forfeiting privacy. In reality, one is deeply imbricated with the other. All this bad decision-making drives home how important privacy tools are. Privacy Badger is one of many. It’s not just that Privacy Badger is built to protect the disempowered users, that it's a plug-n-play tool working quietly (but ferociously) behind the scenes to halt the tracking industry, but that it exists in an ecosystem of other like minded privacy projects that complement each other. Where one tool might miss, another hones in.
This year, Privacy Badger has unveiled exciting support projects and new features:
- Badger Swarm revolutionized Privacy Badger’s learning capabilities
- Google’s link-tracking system is now thwarted in a recent update
- Privacy Badger’s widget replacement mechanism has seen some major improvements
Until we have comprehensive privacy protections in place, until corporate tech stops abusing our desires to not be snooped on, privacy tools must be empowered to make up for these harms. Users deserve the right to choose what privacy means to them, not have that decision made by an advertising company like Google.
This blog is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2023.