Updated: April 3, 2021 9:09:38 am
Written by Brian X Chen
Most of us use web browsers out of habit. If you surf the web with Microsoft Edge, that may be because you use Windows. If you use Safari, that’s probably because you are an Apple customer. If you are a Chrome user, that could be because you have a Google phone or laptop, or you downloaded the Google browser on your personal device after using it on computers at school or work.
In other words, we turn to the browsers that are readily available and familiar. It’s easy to fall into browser inertia because these apps are all fast, capable and serve the same purpose: visiting a website.
So if the differences are minimal, why bother looking for something else?
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By the end of this column, I hope to persuade you to at least try something else: a new type of internet navigator called a private browser. This kind of browser, from less-known brands like DuckDuckGo and Brave, have emerged over the last three years. What stands out is that they minimise the data gathered about us by blocking the technologies used to track us.
That’s generally better than what most mainstream browsers, especially Chrome, do. While some browsers like Safari and Firefox also include tracking prevention, the smaller brands have been focused on even more privacy protections.
We have also reached an inflection point in digital privacy. The online advertising industry is on the brink of ceasing to use web cookies, pieces of code planted in browsers that follow us from site to site and help target us with ads. Google, whose Chrome browser is the world’s most popular, has been trying to develop a new way to target us with ads without the cookie.
Let’s not wait for that. You can decide now that you don’t want to be tracked.
“We’re at a fork in the road,” said Gennie Gebhart, a director at the digital rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, who follows privacy issues. “Companies that keep the lights on by advertising to users, Google included, are scrambling to see what’s the next play. It’s also a time for users to be informed and make a choice.”
Unlike mainstream web browsers, private browsers come in many forms that serve different purposes. For about a week, I tested three of the most popular options — DuckDuckGo, Brave and Firefox Focus. Even I was surprised that I eventually switched to Brave as the default browser on my iPhone. Here’s how it happened.
What is a private browser?
It’s important to know what private browsers do, and what they don’t. So let’s look under the hood.
Private browsers generally incorporate web technologies that have been around for years:
— They rely on something called private mode, also known as incognito mode, which is a browsing session that does not record a history of the websites you have visited. This is useful if you don’t want people with physical access to your device to snoop on you.
— Private browsers also use tracker blockers, which can often be downloaded as an add-on for a browser. The blockers depend on a list of known trackers that grab information about your identity. Whenever you load a website, the software then detects those trackers and restricts them from following you from site to site. The big downside of this approach is that blocking them can sometimes break parts of websites, like shopping carts and videos.
Privacy-focused browsers typically turn private mode on by default, or automatically purge browsing history when you quit the browser. The browsers also have tracking prevention baked in, which lets them aggressively block trackers using approaches that minimise website breakage.
But private browsers do not prevent your internet provider from seeing what websites you visit. So if you are on vacation and using a hotel’s Wi-Fi connection, a private browser will not keep your browsing information private from the hotel’s internet provider. For that type of protection, you still need to connect to a virtual private network, a technology that creates a virtual tunnel that shields your browsing information.
Meet the private browsers
Firefox Focus, DuckDuckGo and Brave are all similar, but with some important differences.
Firefox Focus, available only for mobile devices like iPhones and Android smartphones, is bare-bones. You punch in a web address and, when done browsing, hit the trash icon to erase the session. Quitting the app automatically purges the history. When you load a website, the browser relies on a database of trackers to determine which to block.
DuckDuckGo, also available only for mobile devices, is more like a traditional browser. That means you can bookmark your favorite sites and open multiple browser tabs.
When you use the search bar, the browser returns results from the DuckDuckGo search engine, which the company says is more focused on privacy because its ads do not track people’s online behavior. DuckDuckGo also prevents ad trackers from loading. When done browsing, you can hit the flame icon at the bottom to erase the session.
Brave is also more like a traditional web browser, with anti-tracking technology and features like bookmarks and tabs. It includes a private mode that must be turned on if you don’t want people scrutinizing your web history.
Brave is also so aggressive about blocking trackers that in the process, it almost always blocks ads entirely. The other private browsers blocked ads less frequently.
For most people, not seeing ads is a benefit. But for those who want to give back to a publisher whose ads are blocked, Brave hosts its own ad network that you can opt into. In exchange for viewing ads that do not track your behavior, you earn a cut of revenue in the form of a token. You can then choose to give tokens to websites that you like. (Only web publishers that have a partnership with Brave can receive tokens.)
Battle of the browsers
I tested all three browsers on my iPhone, setting each as my default browser for a few days.
All have a button to see how many trackers they blocked when loading a website. To test that, I visited nypost.com, the website of The New York Post, which loaded 83 trackers without any tracking prevention. With DuckDuckGo, 15 of the nypost.com trackers were blocked. With Brave, it was 22. And Firefox Focus blocked 47.
But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Firefox Focus sometimes broke elements of websites. On some sites, videos failed to load and ad windows could not be closed.
Selena Deckelmann, an executive at Mozilla, which makes Firefox, said that the strict privacy protections in Firefox Focus could sometimes cause websites to break and that the company worked with web publishers so their sites could load properly.
I didn’t experience major issues when using Brave or DuckDuckGo, though there was an occasional hiccup. In one case, when using DuckDuckGo to scroll through Wirecutter, a New York Times sister publication that tests and recommends products, the names of some products did not fully load. While the site was still functional, it looked odd.
In the end, though, you probably would be happy using any of the private browsers. Even if you don’t make one your default browser, it is useful for certain situations, like a sensitive web search on a health condition.
For me, Brave won by a hair. My favorite websites loaded flawlessly, and I enjoyed the clean look of ad-free sites, along with the flexibility of opting in to see ads whenever I felt like it. Brendan Eich, the chief executive of Brave, said the company’s browser blocked tracking cookies “without mercy.”
“If everybody used Brave, it would wipe out the tracking-based ad economy,” he said.
Count me in.
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