My Journey to Better Privacy (Part 2: Browsers)

TLDR

My pick: Firefox, with the extensions HTTPS Everywhere, uBlock Origin, Firefox Multi-Account Containers, and Cookie AutoDelete
Privacy Simplified: If you just want privacy out-of-the-box and don’t care that it’s based on Chromium, go with Brave.
My mobile pick: Safari with Firefox Focus enabled as a content blocker, or Firefox depending on your preference.

Intro

If you read my previous post, you know that I’m on a journey to achieve better online privacy. Much like with search engines, web browsers are something that I’ve been considering for years. I tend to be drawn towards Chrome for its features and the fact that most sites are built to work with it. Then I become more privacy conscious and move to Firefox, with several addons enabled. Some point either after or before that I use Safari because of its integration with my devices (we’re basically an all-Apple house).

I wanted to make a concrete decision this time, though (or at least as concrete of one as can be made when technology changes so drastically from year to year). For that reason, I’m putting my thoughts down in writing and sharing them with you. It’s an accountability mechanism of sorts. Also, I sincerely hope that it benefits you as well.

*One small note before we get started. There are a LOT of browsers out there. I’m only going to cover the top few that tend to circulate through my life and that I think the mass majority would consider.

Chrome

Almost without doubt, if you’re asking which browser is going to be fastest and work the best it’s Chrome. Depending on which stats you look at, it has up to 75% of the market share, and for good reason.

By StatCounter – http://gs.statcounter.com/browser-market-share#monthly-200901-201905, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80089473

But, how is it in regards to privacy? After all, its maker Google has come under a lot of scrutiny in that area over the last several years. Even The Washington Post basically called it spyware. They’re an ad business, using their “free” services to collect mountains of data to fuel that business, and Chrome is just a tool to help direct people towards contributing to that. It’s also becoming a bit of a monopoly as well, to the point where developers only code for it to the exclusion of other browsers. For these and other reasons, many (including myself) are highly suspicious of letting it pilot our journey through the web.

However, they haven’t left users completely without options. If you’re willing to look for the options in settings then you can turn off a lot of the snooping. Also, Chrome has one of the richest extension libraries, so you can add a number of those that will greatly enhance its privacy capabilities.

I for one remain too skeptical to embrace it as my daily driver. I truly wish that weren’t so, because it’s probably my favorite overall. But it just doesn’t sit easy with me.

Firefox

I’m going to be a lot more verbose concerning Firefox, because it is basically the measure by which I will judge all the others. It has a long history of fighting web browser monopolies and is basically a household name at this point. Below are some of the reasons it stands out to me.

Open Source: It is not the only option I’ll discuss that is open source, but it’s probably the most respected in the open source community. I’m not someone who will say non-open-source is evil (I’m writing this from a Mac), but I do think it’s something we should promote as often as possible. This is especially true in regards to the web. At this point in our culture the internet is almost like a utility. It houses essential resources for communication, productivity, education, and so on. It’s my belief that an open source browser from a non-profit company is better positioned to safeguard that than an offering from a large corporation which has special interests.

Defenders of the open web: Continuing off the point above, Mozilla (the maker of Firefox) has a long history and deep commitment to keeping the web open. Because they aren’t selling ad services, they can freely support ad blockers unlike Google is doing. They also sponsor lots of events to educate people on how to interact with, and contribute to, the web community.

Cross-platform: Firefox will run on Windows, Mac, or Linux. You can also have it on Android or iOS devices. If your life doesn’t reside all on one platform (as most people’s doesn’t) you can still use Firefox and sync your data across all devices.

Not Chromium based: Chromium is the open source browser that Chrome is built on. It’s basically Chrome before some Google-specific components are added in. As already mentioned above, Chrome is becoming a bit of a monopoly. There is NOTHING wrong with building a browser on Chromium. Several fantastic browsers do that. However, it further contributes to this monopoly. The more Chromium-based browsers there are, the more developers code to only that platform. This leads to the exclusion of other browsers. When users hit issues they think “Why is this browser terrible?”, not “Why isn’t this site built better?”. This continually funnels more people towards Chromium based browsers, where the sites “just work”. And in the end Google has gained more control over how the web behaves than any one company should have. Firefox, however, uses its own engine and it’s fantastic. For a deeper look at the pros and cons of using Chromium-based browsers, this article is a great read.

Extensions: Honestly extensions are almost what make a browser in regards to privacy. And Firefox has a WEALTH of them, in addition to the privacy features already built in. Don’t get me wrong, Chromium-based browsers do as well via the Google Chrome Web Store. But, that continues the Google snowball that I’ve already discussed. Firefox is known for being extremely customizable, much of which comes from its extensions. You can go full-on tin foil hat with them or use none at all. Below is the list that I have found to be a good balance between completely open and so secure that the internet is unusable:

  • LastPass (Password management)
  • HTTPS Everywhere (Resends your requests using the encrypted URL instead of the standard one)
  • uBlock Origin (Blocks ads and tracking from Google, Facebook, and others)
  • Firefox Multi-Account Containers (Keeps cookies in silos so that sites can’t use info from other ones to track you)
  • Cookie AutoDelete (Every time you close a tab it deletes the cookies associated with it, so that they don’t linger and become used in malicious ways)

Containers: Continuing off of the extensions discussion, I’d like to expound a bit more on the Multi-Account Containers made by Firefox. This is one of the key features specific to Firefox that no other browser has. I can have my work, social, banking, search, and other sites open in their own little silos. That way none of them mixes together and uses each other’s cookies to spy on me. It really is a fantastic way of walling off information from those with ill intentions. There is a bit of work up front to tell it which containers you want sites to open in, but thereafter it will use them automatically.

Conscience: Last but not least, it just sits well with my conscience. Maybe it’s just me, and others might not put a lot of stock in it, but there’s something to be said for having peace of mind.

So what are the downsides? Let’s not pretend there aren’t any. As mentioned before, you will likely run into more issues with sites not working than with a Chromium-based browser. Who’s fault this is doesn’t really matter, in the end the result is encountering more problems. Ones that likely won’t go away. Secondly, it’s just not as polished in general. The Quantum rewrite took it forward leaps in both speed and performance, but it still seems to lag more and be less smooth overall.

How much any of these cons matter to you will largely depend on how hard-core you want to go with the privacy push. Without a doubt, you can’t go wrong with Firefox when looking for better privacy and security.

Safari

Safari is actually quite a good browser these days, and also very privacy focused. Apple has realized that privacy is a niche where they stand out in a good way. Whether they intended to do that for the sake of the users or just ended up there by happenstance, nobody knows. But they’re milking it.

There are a bunch of small features that make Safari appealing in my Apple-integrated world. Chief among these are:

  • Reader mode (Other browsers have one, but this one is the best)
  • Text shortcuts (Every time I want to input my email I simply type “eml” and hit space. The same is true for address, phone, etc. This saves a surprising amount of typing and syncs across my devices.)
  • Seamless syncing with my other devices
  • Built-in reading list
  • Beautiful design and performance on both desktop and mobile

Add to the items above that you can add extensions, plus other capabilities through App Store apps, and Safari is a solid option. You’re probably wondering at this point why I don’t use it given all the bragging.

As with all things, it has its downsides as well. One of the major ones is a less robust extension library. Some of the major players like uBlock Origin is there, but things like HTTPS Everywhere are not. And some that are present don’t work quite as well within Safari for whatever reason. Also missing is a way to manage cookies by tab. I have purchased a separate program named Cookie 5 that will delete them on close of the browser. But I use my browser all day long, and that is a lot of time in between for sites to use my cookies in ways I don’t desire.

So, though Safari provides the best experience overall, I’m sad to say it doesn’t fit well enough into my privacy-focused world.

Mobile is a different story. Apple locks developers into using their web engine on iOS, so no matter what browser you’re using it’s basically just Safari reskinned. Adding in a content blocker like Firefox Focus gives you the ad blocking and increased privacy you want. Also, nothing else matches the smoothness and integration of Safari on iOS.

Brave

One of the standout Chromium-based browsers is Brave. I’ve been testing it it out and REALLY like it. This browser’s company was started by the co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich. Its focus is on providing out-of-the-box much of the security/privacy that others offer via extensions, and also on solving the issue of website ads. It has a novel approach where publishers and users opt into a network where users are rewarded for surfing and can give some of that back to their favorite content creators. In this way you eliminate targeted ads and much of the privacy issues that accompany them.

Honestly, it seems like a great browser. It’s definitely a great solution for the not-so-techy folks who just want better privacy. Many of the functionalities I described in my favorite extensions above are built right into the browser, among others. If a site isn’t working well, just click the “shields down” button to allow it to work as normal. Also, it can install any plugins from the Google Chrome Web Store.

The only hangup for me is that it’s Chromium based (which was discussed at length above). Also, the mobile app isn’t awesome. It’s getting better, but still not quite to the level as that of Firefox. If those things don’t bother you, get it. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Conclusion

All of that to say, in my opinion Firefox best fits the bill for a privacy-focused world view. It’s the only browser that allows me to silo websites, manage cookies per-tab as I close them, isn’t built on Google software and therefore isn’t controlled by them, and comes from a company that is well positioned to put the needs of the users first.

I won’t be offended if you don’t agree. There are as many opinions as there are browsers. But I hope that sharing this is thought provoking and will assist in your own journey to better privacy!

In the end it’s not which browser you use that protects your privacy so much as 1) where you browse to and 2) being mindful of how the web works. To that end, pick one with a track record for being secure, pick reputable addons to enhance its capabilities, and browse smartly.

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