There’s power in your choices. This is a post about Chrome.

Posted: September 26, 2018

It’s likely that by reading this you build part of the Internet. It might be a small corner, but it’s yours and you built it. In the big picture not a lot of people can say that, and as a result your decisions carry weight. I don’t mean to sound weighty but I think it’s safe to say your influence is bigger than you think. I can elaborate.

In a recent update to Chrome the Google team decided to bridge the gap between signing in to your Google account and signing in to your… browser? By ‘bridging the gap’ they mashed it all together and without asking you decided that if you sign into a Google account you also sign in to the browser. The reason for this was to improve the user experience (read: confusion) of the two sign in processes.

You and I both know that while it’s a decent reason, it’s not the underlying real reason. Google wants to know (even) more about you, and this is the latest step to do that.

Google is an ad company

I don’t know why we forget that all the time. We’re too enamored by how well executed so many of their products are. But that’s their point. They make awesome tech to get people to use it as much as they possibly can so it has as much data as it possibly can so they can sell as many ads as they possibly can. This is old news though, right?

The question is: do you want to contribute to it? Do you want to encourage your friends and family to contribute to it?

Some people say that they understand Google’s goals and are happy to be a part of that machine. I think there are just as many that are unknowingly contributing to Google’s efforts without understanding what’s really going on. The same goes for other companies (e.g. every social network in the world) in the same business.

What about Chrome?

Chrome is perhaps the best example of how clever Google is in making it as easy as possible for you to give them your data. It’s the primary vehicle in browsing the Web and when configured properly can know a ton about you even when Google Analytics isn’t installed.

I think Why I’m done with Chrome is a good primer on the overall situation of why this auto-login change is something to form an opinion around. I’m not saying you have to take the same stance, but I think you owe it to yourself to acknowledge what the change says about Chrome going forward.

The post outlines specifically what’s changed and also noted the seemingly passive reaction to the whole thing, which is likely what Google was hoping for in this update. It also notes that specific sync features are still opt-in, and that the change doesn’t automatically send (more) data to Google than before. While that’s good(?) it’s also a step in that direction, a testing of the waters to see what Chrome users will let slide.

I say that because I agree with the author in the explanation about Chrome Sync being a UI dark pattern:

Does that big blue button indicate that I’m already synchronizing my data to Google? That’s scary! Wait, maybe it’s an invitation to synchronize! If so, what happens to my data if I click it by accident? (I won’t give it the answer away, you should go find out. Just make sure you don’t accidentally upload all your data in the process. It can happen quickly.)

Of course Google wants you to opt in to their sync (“more data more better”) and using a dark pattern is the best way to do that. Which leads me to my next point:

Do you want to contribute?

By using Chrome you’re helping Google do what Google does, so I think it’s important for you to ask yourself whether you’re okay with that. I also think it’s important to keep that in mind as you encourage your friends and family to use a better browser. For the past decade I think a lot of people have been encouraging others to use Chrome because it’s “fast” and Google does an abrasive job of getting you to try Chrome if you’re using any Google product in another browser.

Their market share reflects the success of their efforts. Even in our tiny bubble of developers the occurrence of “only works in Chrome” is a huge indicator of how much weight Chrome carries with developers. Google knows that developers have a lot of influence so it’s no surprise that their developer tools are first in class.

Another interesting development that arose as more eyes looked into the Chrome update was that Google is a bit selective when it comes to what should be straightforward tasks like deleting your cookies (which are in many ways integral to tracking scripts)

There’s an interesting thread there.

Choices matter

I realize that this post reads like hyperbole in asking you to think long and hard about the browser you choose to use, but if we take a look at the landscape around us, the ‘problems’ on the Web, it’s stuff like this that underpins it all. There’s a war on privacy in our world of Web development. As we have choice in the places we shop and the food we eat, we have a choice here too.

In my personal opinion I think it’s worth contrasting all of this with recent efforts from Mozilla for Firefox. Between the massive update that is Quantum, Container, and Monitor I think it’s pretty self explanatory.

In closing, I think it’s interesting to read that Google has “listened to user feedback” about the recent Chrome updates despite the initial reaction being in defense of the update. They’re going to make updates to better communicate the change and offer more control over the experience. It’ll be interesting to see what that looks like.

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