St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

The Web is a Shot Bird

Mozilla caused a kerfuffle on the weekend by deliberately pushing an add-on to a lot of people’s Firefox installations. This add-on, called Looking Glass and accompanied by the ominous text “MY REALITY IS JUST DIFFERENT THAN YOURS”, turned out to be a promotional tie-in with the TV show Mr. Robot. Like a lot of Firefox users tired of Mozilla’s fuckery, I’ve been nosing around for alternative browsers — but the state of the browser ecosystem is shockingly poor. A large number of alternate browsers out there are forked or patched versions of Chromium and Firefox, and the ones that aren’t are painfully underpowered.

What’s the reason for such low genetic diversity in the browser world? It’s because creating a Web browser is hard. The Web isn’t the Web it used to be — you can’t just slap together something that renders basic HTML and CSS and call it a Web browser. You now need something that can handle CSS animations, form validation, HTML5 canvas elements, secure encryption, digital rights management, FIDO U2F, and enough audio and video support to replace your default media player. On top of all that let’s not forget a JavaScript engine that doesn’t chug along like Steamboat Willie. Google and Mozilla spend a lot of time and money making JavaScript fly in their browsers, so good luck with that. So when aspiring young Jane or Jimmy says that someday they want to build their own browser, they’ve set themselves a practically impossible task. Just fork Chromium or Firefox instead and have 90% of the work done for you out of the box.

Why don’t I just shut up and make do with a truly independent browser, one that’s not based on Chromium or Firefox? Aside from being chronically underpowered and lacking features (just you try watching Netflix using qutebrowser or Midori; go on, I’ll wait), those independent browsers won’t support Chrome or Firefox extensions. I would never browse the Web now without at least an ad-blocker. My minimum suite of add-ons consists of uBlock Origin (ad blocker), HTTPS Everywhere (security), and Privacy Badger (privacy). I would no longer consider browsing the Web without these or equivalent add-ons because the Web has become an ad-infested, unsecure, privacy-invading stew. It’s like acid rain in all those old sci-fi stories where kids have to go to school wearing armor-plated raincoats. We’re all wearing the armor-plated raincoats now, and anyone browsing the Web without one is asking for trouble.

So this is the state of affairs: we have a Web that no-one can browse and no-one can build a browser for. It’s a shot bird, in my opinion, and probably beyond saving. Which hurts to say — I grew up online and spent a lot of very happy days making friends there and discoving the enormous quantity of stuff that was available to me for the first time (obscure music, digitized books, census records). But when was the last time you visited someone’s website? You don’t any more — you visit their Tumblr or their Twitter or their Facebook. When was the last time you downloaded an MP3 and discovered a new band you liked? You don’t — you let Spotify or Pandora make recommendations and stream them to you. The Web has been turned into an app delivery service and your browser has been turned into an app execution platform, all for the sake of companies that are harvesting users as their product. The Web has strangled itself out of all diversity and innovation. I’m not saying there aren’t still great things on the Web or that we should go back to 1997, but things can’t and won’t continue like this indefinitely. Something has to change. Until then, I dunno… browse Gopherspace or read a book. Ned Beauman’s got a new one out called Madness Is Better Than Defeat. Seems apt.

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