Want Web Privacy? Pay for It.
Don't expect the government or the software giants to stop the Web snoops from tracking you.
But even after you take all the recommended cookie-crushing precautions and turn on the "private browsing" features of your browser, you can still be tracked, as this recent CNET piece reports. Modern browsers send Web sites a slew of seemingly innocuous information (browser version, OS, screen size, fonts installed, etc.) that can identify you.
Instead of letting the government decide what my browser does or doesn't do, or trusting my Web access to Google and Microsoft's conflicted executives, I'd prefer that a team of software engineers—who aren't knee-deep in the advertising business—build a browser from the ground up that guarantees whatever privacy level I desire. I'd pay the going rate for such a piece of software, just as I'd pay for a security fence for my property or an anti-theft device for my car. Hell, I'd subscribe to such a super-browser if it promised regular updates to protect me from intrusions and infections.
Slatetechnology columnist Farhad Manjoo likes my argument but says: "I doubt there's a market for such a browser. People don't care about privacy. They just say they do. If they did, they wouldn't use Facebook."
So maybe I'm tilting at windmills. Don't get me wrong. I'm not an anti-cookie raver who insists on invisibility every time I prowl the Web. Cookies make "logging in" to a Web site possible. They simplify the shopping experience. They deliver advertising that might interest me. But as the Journal series makes apparent, too many Web entrepreneurs observe no limits when they decide to snoop. It's not in Microsoft, Google, or Apple's interest to create browsers that serve me first and advertisers second.
What would a secure and private browser that users pay for look like? I'm not a software engineer, but it's obvious that I would want it to do all the things that I currently kludge together on my own: provide cookie control and make it easy to block unwanted content—ads, video, malware, tracking software, scripts, etc. It would learn from my browsing patterns which sites I considered safe and "whitelist" them, and which sites I considered obnoxious and put them on a "blacklist." It would offer genuine anonymous browsing, keeping "innocuous information" generated by your browser from identifying you. It wouldn't wait for FTC saber-rattling before introducing more aggressive "tracking protection" and "tracking protection lists," as Microsoft did yesterday for its upcoming Internet Explorer 9. It would establish inviolable "opt-in" privacy-and-security standards for participating Web sites and similar opt-in standards for advertisers who agreed to respect the new rules. (As I said, I'm not against advertising!)
Who could build such a browser? Makers of anti-virus software (a group that's not already vested in the advertising industry) would be good candidates, as they're accustomed to thinking the worst about the code spreading on the Web. And how would such a browser be received by Web sites? Well, if a site determines that you're blocking advertising and tracking cookies, it might decide not to let you in its front door, which would be its right. There is no such thing as a free lunch—either at a bar or on the Web. Web sites that reject the privacy browsers could set up parallel pages that required payment for entry. I could live with that. We've been spoiled by "free software" and "free services" for too long. As Andrew Lewis wrote in August, "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold."
Unsell yourself. Demand a browser that you'd be happy to pay for.
Which current browser is the best? A study released in the spring found that Internet Explorer 8 was the best at blocking socially engineered malware, but that's not the final word. As for the other browsers—Avant, Flock, Green Browser, K-meleon, Rockmelt, Maxthon, Sleipnir, and Slim—none of them measures up to my privacy ideal. Send your software fantasies to email@example.com and browse my Twitter feed. Thanks to Rebecca Rothfeld for research help. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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