Before Google, Facebook and Amazon, tech dominance was known by a single name: Microsoft.
And no product was more dominant than Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer. The company’s browser was the gateway to the internet for about 95 percent of users in the early 2000s, which helped land Microsoft at the center of a major government effort to break up the company.
Almost two decades later, Google’s Chrome now reigns as the biggest browser on the block, and the company is facing challenges similar to Microsoft’s from competitors, as well as government scrutiny.
But Google faces a new wrinkle — a growing realization among consumers that their every digital move is tracked.
“I think Cambridge Analytica acted as a catalyst to get people aware that their data could be used in ways they didn’t expect,” said Peter Dolanjski, the product lead for Mozilla’s Firefox web browser, referring to the scandal in which a political consulting firm obtained data on millions of Facebook users and their friends.
Web browsers, being the primary way the vast majority of people experience the internet, are a crucial choke point in the digital ecosystem. While the browsers are free to users, the companies that operate them can have an outsized impact on how the internet works — especially if they gain a dominant market position. For a company like Google, which makes most of its money from online advertising, that has meant being able to liberally collect user data. For a nonprofit like Mozilla, more users means the chance to convince developers and other tech companies to adopt their privacy-focused standards.
Chrome, with more than 60 percent market share worldwide, is yet another source of complaints about Google’s power, after its search engine and advertisement businesses. Last year, Chrome changed the system for logging in to the browser, a move that one researcher said could allow Google to collect data much more easily.
Firefox trails Microsoft in corporate size and influence, but it is pressing other browsers on privacy and playing up its status as a nonprofit. Last month, Firefox changed the initial settings for new users so that third-party tracking “cookies” such as those used for ad purposes are blocked — meaning the default is no tracking.
A technology columnist at the Post wrote in a scathing review last month that he was switching from Chrome to Firefox, calling Google’s product “a lot like surveillance software.” In a week of desktop websurfing, the columnist, Geoffrey Fowler, wrote that he discovered 11,189 requests for tracker cookies that were blocked by Firefox but would have been allowed by Chrome.
The browser fight has become heated enough to worry the advertising and media industries. Advertisers have become used to filling up websites with sometimes dozens of “cookies” and other forms of online tracking, and they fear a wider backlash against personalized, data-driven ads.
For now, there are few signs that Google’s browser dominance will end anytime soon, but the tech industry is riddled with examples of companies that appeared to be invincible just before their fall, including with web browsers.