If Chrome fixes privacy too fast it could break the web, Google exec warns

But Chrome's browser rivals are pushing hard to improve online privacy.

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Stephen Shankland
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Justin Schuh, Google Chrome's leader for trust and safety, speaks at the Usenix Enigma conference.

Justin Schuh, Google Chrome's leader for trust and safety, speaks at the Usenix Enigma conference.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

There's a growing consensus that it's the browser's job to protect our privacy on the web. But on Tuesday, a Google Chrome leader warned that trying to make that change too soon could actually hurt the web by driving developers to mobile apps instead.

"At our scale, it's not reasonable to move too fast, because it's too destructive," said Justin Schuh, a Chrome engineering manager for trust and safety. Much of the content on the web is supported by advertising revenue, and advertisers will shift to mobile apps if they can't get what they need on the web, he said in a panel discussion at the Usenix Enigma security and privacy conference.

Yet there's a risk for Google in moving too slowly, too. Its browser rivals are working hard on privacy improvements, and Chrome is the browser they compare themselves against most often. Schuh in 2019 proposed a series of changes called the privacy sandbox for Chrome and, Google hopes, other browsers. But that move came after other browser rivals like Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari, Brave Software's Brave and Microsoft's Edge already had begun releasing features to curtail online tracking.

It's a tension that cuts across the tech industry, not just browser makers. Apple has made a strong push for privacy, but meanwhile millions of people have grown accustomed to free, ad-supported services like search and social networking. We'll pay subscription fees for some things -- some newspapers and streaming video sites, for example -- but it's not clear we'll pay for everything to avoid prying advertisers.

And not everyone agrees with Schuh's assessment that moving too fast on privacy will break the web.

Mozilla's privacy pushback

One critic is Tanvi Vyas, a Mozilla principal engineer who works on web privacy. She sees other ways of targeting ads at users, such as contextual ads that are matched to a website's audience without tracking every user. And she's skeptical that developers will stop investing in websites or slow down investments if they don't like the web privacy movement.

"I don't think the majority of the web is going to do that," Vyas said in an interview after her appearance on the Enigma panel. Websites will need to reach the large number of people who don't install apps, she argued. "I'm not going to install 1,000 apps, but I'll visit 1,000 websites," she said.

She called for mobile operating system makers -- Google and Apple -- to build the web's privacy protections into mobile apps, with laws enforcing the change if necessary. "Browsers shouldn't hold the transition back the way other ecosystems have held the transition back," Vyas said.

But Schuh said that advertising revenue, the lifeblood of many companies, is already shifting away from the web.

"The mobile web is plateauing and mobile is still rising in terms of ad spending," Schuh said in an interview, citing data from ad industry tracking firm eMarketer.

Smaller browsers more nimble

Google's Chrome dominates the web, accounting for 64 percent of browser usage, according to analytics firm StatCounter. That kind of heft means Google simply can't make drastic changes like you'll see at a smaller browser -- Schuh held up Brave as an example.

Yan Zhu, chief information security officer at Brave

Yan Zhu, chief information security officer at Brave, speaking at Usenix Enigma.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

"I envy the situation Brave is in. I do remember when Chrome was a small browser and we got to do things we can't do at the scale we're at," Schuh said.

Brave is indeed being more radical, blocking all ads by default, working aggressively to protect privacy, and offering an alternative payment system designed to make advertisers happy but without tracking anyone.

"We want to repair the privacy problems and the existing ecosystem in a way that no other browser has really tried," said Yan Zhu, Brave's chief information security officer.

Slow and steady

Schuh has a point about moving deliberately, said Eric Lawrence, a Microsoft program manager working on privacy and networking.

"As a giant, you have to move slower," said Lawrence, who's seen browsers from several perspectives. Earlier in his career, he worked on Microsoft's old Internet Explorer browser, then moved to Google to help build Chrome, then returned to Microsoft to work on Edge.

Google is behaving as a responsible giant, he said. Take, for example, Google's plan to change how websites can use text files called cookies in a way he expects could be used to curtail tracking. Google announced this "samesite" cookie policy change in May 2019 and plans to ship it in February 2020

It's an important step that reflects the Chrome team's gradual approach to solving problems, he said. "They turn off pieces of the problem until they're small enough to strangle."

Privacy becomes expected

Driven by issues like endless data breaches and Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, privacy has become a top issue for browser makers. Website publishers, advertisers and data brokers have grown increasingly sophisticated in tracking you around the web, and now browser makers are pushing back harder and harder.

Apple started pushing web privacy harder in 2017 with the debut of technology called Intelligent Tracking Prevention, a feature that dovetails with Chief Executive Tim Cook's frequent calls for online privacy. Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge have added tracking protection using a different mechanism, a list of online resources they can block when you're visiting websites. Brave, led by former Firefox leader Brendan Eich, has pushed privacy as one of the main reasons to use the browser.

Tracking can be visible when you look at a product on one website and then see ads for it on a bunch of others, a phenomenon that some find creepy. But tracking can take other forms, too, as when companies sell your browsing history so companies can see what you do online, or detect your interest in a particular subject on one website then show an ad for it on another where it's cheaper to advertise.

Unfortunately for web surfers, tracking-protection mechanisms can backfire, Google researchers showed in a paper they revealed last week that Apple's Intelligent Tracking Prevention actually opens up new tracking abilities.

And worse, "this is a concern not just for Safari and ITP, but for all other anti-tracking proposals," tweeted Artur Janc, one of the paper's authors. One of the Google Chrome privacy tools under development, a "privacy budget" that would limit how much personal data a website could use, "will have to grapple with the same kinds of issues," he said.