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Category: Web, HTML, Tech

Browsers, servers, extensions, oh my!

We've briefly addressed servers and browsers in previous lessons, but how do they work? Sure, the internet is involved, but how does the information go from point A to point B?

A browser is an application program that provides a way to look at and interact with all the information on the World Wide Web. When the web browser fetches (or retrieves) data from an internet-connected server, it uses a piece of software called a rendering engine to translate that data into text and images. This engine takes the data in packets, which are chunks of data split up in order to travel through your phone lines to you faster, and reconstructs it. This data is written in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) code, the main language used within the World Wide Web, and web browsers read this code to create what we see, hear, and experience on the internet.

I have rephrased the following section a few times due to new information.

In the current online world, there are 3 browsers generally offered for the average user: Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome.

In previous years, Firefox was written off by the general public due to their dealings with Yahoo! as their primary search engine, which was involved with ad and spyware as well as other scandals, and lacked innovation. However, Firefox terminated their deal with Yahoo! in 2017 and changed their default search engine to Google. Since then, they've added DuckDuckGo and Bing to the list of search engines you can use from the browser's search bar, along with numerous security and management adjustments. Firefox is also owned by a not-for-profit organization, Mozilla, whose browser is open-source and has roots as one of the descendants of the first web browser available to the public - National Center for Supercomputing Applications' (NCSA) Mosaic browser. Mozilla is also the inventor of Javascr!pt, one of the main languages used in modern web design today.

HOWEVER, I want to place a disclaimer here. Mozilla and Firefox are not the catch-all answer. In fact, Mozilla has a long history of lying within their TOS, and one day, their partnerships with Google may become a merger, effectively creating a Google-dominated Internet. In fact, it's been proven that Mozilla partners with all the people they claim to hate. Google is currently one of the major funding avenues for Mozilla, in order to keep up the ruse that Google isn't a monopoly. Firefox is its defense. Plus, every time you turn off Firefox, it sends a request to Mozilla containing information about the entire state of your browser at the moment of closure. Simply put, whatever data you had in your browser (cookies, trackers, open websites, etc.) goes straight to Mozilla, Now, if Firefox isn't selling your data, why do they need it?

This section is a sidebar about Terms of Service.

I highly recommend an article called Mozilla - Devil Incarnate. While I don't agree with everything DigDeeper says in this article, it shows us the benefit of checking in on those finicky Terms of Service forms that we fill out so flippantly. Now, I'm not saying you need to read every TOS - you'd be stuck for days trying to translate and understand the legal-ese presented in each 2000+ word essay - but major things like our browsers, our phone systems, even our base Operating System are terms we SHOULD be reading. Some of it, because of the wording from the husk that is marketing legal firms, is really hard to understand the full meaning. In the article mentioned earlier, I disagree with a few points simply because I can interpret a line a few different ways. That's by design, however! The people who write the TOS actually WANT it to be confusing, hard to read, and up to interpretation because it covers their ass in court. The TOS is a legally binding document, quite literally the digital version of fine print. When you accept it, you are putting your signature on that page. If they say you can't sue them, you can't. If they say that they're privacy focused but "sometimes you need data indefinitely", the vagueness can cover them for whatever they want, now and into the infinite future.

People can even sell your genetic data - that's what 23andMe is doing and has been doing since 2018 or earlier. 23andMe also forces this into the TOS: "You promise that you won’t try to claim rights to research or products 23andMe potentially creates with your saliva." which is odd because most people don't know they're creating ANYTHING with given samples. The TOS is so important, especially around health, technology we use daily, and even things like theme parks. That's why things like Terms Of Service, Didn't Read exists (which if you like, you should donate to them, they're doing great work) - to save users the time of having to fight strange language, tiny print, and hundreds of thousands of words. They also have a little extension to see the TOS breakdown of any site in their database when you're on it. Some people are a little less malicious, like Peacock.TV and their TOS a few years back, with section 9 being a recipe for chocolate cake (it's not there anymore :[ ). The point being, reading the TOS (or finding alternative ways to read it) can change how you feel about a product, what you're willing to do and share, and what you're willing to give away. In the EU, TOS is not legally binding if it's unfair or not transparent. In the US, it's purposefully hazy and usually rules in favor of businesses.

Back in the 1990s and 2000s, Apple's computers were reliant on Netscape Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer for browser software. It wasn't until 2003 that Apple would invent their own browser software, Safari. I compare Safari to Internet Explorer and its later evolution, Microsoft Edge, fairly often as all three tend to fall behind on newer HTML standards and features, but run lightweight systems. If you choose to use the Apple suite of products (Mac, iPhone, and more), it may benefit you to use Safari simply for ease of compatibility. Edge actually has a few advantages over Safari when it comes to features like blocking cryptominer scripts (lines of code that attempt to use your computer's power for bitcoin collection) and in-browser screenshotting, but with Edge being an offshoot of Chromium, it will run less than or just as well as Google Chrome.

Within the earlier lessons, I have made it clear that I have a distaste for Google, but let me further explain why.

Google Chrome was generally favored over Internet Explorer and Firefox in its early days, being the cutting edge technology of the time with a direct connection to Google's servers. The browser ran faster than most and contained little adware, but became bloated as time moved forward. Chrome is a notorious RAM-eater (Safari is too, but with less impact on your device) and is known for its privacy issues. Being owned by Google, it can track all your browser movements and report them to advertisers directly. They are also known for spyware and blocking competition, like hiding other search engines or running scans in your browser to identify if you're using adblock.

There are many more than just 3 browsers, but the problem is that a large number of them are just Google's rendering engine in a hidden package. Things like Opera and Microsoft Edge both run on Google's Chromium software. In fact, Google takes up about 63% of ALL BROWSER USAGE in 2022, the runner-up being Safari with only about 18%. This means over half of the internet population is giving their browsing history, their personal details, their interests, and more to the largest advertising agency in the digital world, who then sells it to the highest bidder for particular demographics. Not only that, but Alphabet (Google's parent company) controls what does and does not go through their algorithms. Certain content, like we mentioned in the "Who Controls the Internet?" lesson, are locked behind region-blocks, government interference, and the personal interests of Alphabet. With AI in the mix as well, Google search results are being flooded with incorrect information, which effects how easily information on sensitive topics is accessed. People are getting incorrect answers about medicine, facilities, government assistance, and more. Google also owns the largest video hosting and sharing site - YouTube. This fact becomes increasingly important as we learn about extensions.

When thinking about other browser options

Now, when talking about files, extensions are the suffixes added to the name of a file to indicate the file's layout of data. When talking about a browser, however, an extension is a software module for customization. These used to be known as plug-ins, which were run as executable files (.exe), but are now created and run as source code within the browser software itself. These browser extensions can adjust many facets of your experience like adblockers, user interface modifications, and more. Extensions are limited to some degree though because not all are created equally across every browser. Each browser has its own market of extensions, though a good portion of the most popular ones have been recreated within most major browser types.

Adblockers are code that block advertiser server communications within a web page, as well as hide the advertising display elements. They also can remove certain page elements like trending tags, trackers, and cookies. Cookies are small files of hidden information that a web server generates and sends to a web browser. These can be used for little things like remembering your log-in or toggling dark mode on a social media automatically. Not all cookies are harmless thought - some are exploited for advertising, surreptitious data collection, precisely identifying you, and sharing your personal information among other companies to know about your activity on a particular website. To control what your adblocker hides, the extension contains filter rules that mark certain domains containing advertising servers.

AdBlock’s options page

(Pictured: AdBlock's extension settings, specifically for filter lists.)

Filter lists aren't the only way to attack trackers and cookies though - algorithms can also be a useful tool, like in the instances of Privacy Badger and Privacy Possum. Privacy Badger nor Possum focus on advertising itself, but instead focus on trackers, unique cookies, and third-party interference on websites you visit. Possum specifically focuses on location and cache trackers as well. I personally rely on Possum, Badger, and uBlock Origin to remove most, if not all, advertising and trackers from my user experience. You may also find use with the "I Still Don't Care About Cookies" extension or the ClearURLs extension to remove extra tracking within the URL or first-party cookies. As of 2023, these are my recommendations, but I'll be creating an updating list with what I choose in the future.

Within Alphabet's owned products, YouTube comes as the testing ground for future restrictions. Recently, adblock has been blocked within the YouTube domain - which previously was something websites couldn't detect before as they're within your browser and not the site itself. People have found ways around it, of course, but it leads to possible legal disputes in the future. YouTube claims that adblock is against their terms of service, while blocking adblock is possibly illegal under EU privacy and security laws. AdBlock detection scripts are spyware — there is no other way to describe them and as such it is not acceptable to deploy them without consent.

My personal recommendation won't work for everyone, but for the average user, you will find that Firefox runs extremely well with the above extensions. Advertising will no longer dominate your internet experience and your privacy will slowly be relinquished back to you the more you use it. Mozilla, being not-for-profit, tends to have updates and features that benefit its users and not investor interests, though not always.

With my opinions in mind (and please note, a lot of my choice for Firefox is merely opinion), please consider researching for yourself, or check out DigDeeper Club's dive into modern browsers.

Now that we know a bit more about our browser, let's dive into a more complex topic - Clouds. And not the ones you see outside, but the ethereal Cloud Storage and Cloud Computing.

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