Mozilla, the not-for-profit foundation behind the internet browser Firefox, released a report alleging that Big Tech companies Google, Apple and Microsoft of using anti-competitive practices while promoting their respective web browsers (Chrome, Safari and Edge) and driving users away from other alternatives such as Firefox and Opera. The report goes deeper into how these software giants use their almost monopolistic positions along with manipulative design to their advantage.
Why it matters?
Of the 4.2 billion mobile internet subscribers globally, about 72% are Android users and 27% use iOS, Mozilla states. In the case of desktops, the share of Windows is over 74% and that of MacOS exceeds 14%, according to statcounter. This reveals the clear domination of three companies – Google, Apple and Microsoft, in creating operating systems for smartphones and desktops/laptops. Their control over operating systems allows them to promote their web browsers and even drive people away from the alternatives. Competition is essential in browsers and browser engines not only to advance speed and innovation but also to enhance privacy and security, the report says. More options will give users more choice in what kind of features and security terms they want. Restricting alternate browsers will force people to use native browsers regardless of how bad their privacy policies and features are.
Without browser diversity, a single company’s influence can shape the internet, the report argues. An example of these issues would be when Microsoft’s position in the market was so dominant that it did not release another edition of the browser for five years. Security problems proliferated, and there was little innovation until competition arrived from Mozilla’s Firefox browser, the report mentions. Firefox claims it succeeded in putting pressure on Microsoft to improve the product and release updates at an “accelerated rate”. The monetary costs for using a browser are usually zero, so companies compete on quality, and without competition, the consumers might receive lower quality products, the report states.
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The problem with only 3 browser engines
The report states that there are only three main browser engine providers – Google, Apple and Mozilla. A browser engine is a key and complex piece of technology on which the user-facing browser is built, the report explains. Google uses an engine called Blink, Apple uses WebKit and Mozilla uses Gecko. Apple’s browser engine works only on Apple devices. Hence, “Without Mozilla, the only cross-platform browser engine available would be Google, which would concentrate a lot of power in the hands of a single company”, the report states. Even Opera, Edge and Brave use Chrome’s Blink browser engine.
This report can be classified into two major parts. One, which deals with operating systems, browsers and how consumers behave. And two, how the design and architecture used by operating system (OS) providers shape which browser the consumer decides to use.
Part 1: Browsers and Human behaviour
Mozilla conducted a survey of over 6,000 residents in the US, UK, France, India and Kenya and made the following observations about their attitudes and preferences while choosing a web browser and search engine:
- A large number of people said that they have never installed a web browser on their desktop/laptop or smartphone. Only 38% of Australians said they have ever installed a web browser in their smartphone. [Data from Australia has been sourced from an external study by Mozilla]. The number was 55% in the US, 48% in the UK and 58% in France. In India and Kenya, the number was pretty high. 93% of respondents in India and 92% in Kenya said they have installed a web browser on their smartphones. A large number of people saying they’ve never installed a web browser indicates that people just go ahead with whatever default option of browser and search engine is the OS provider.
- There’s a lack of awareness among a large set of the population about the different browser options available. 54% of Indian respondents said they’ve never given much thought to what browser and search engine they use. The number was 34% in Australia, 55% in the US, 54% in the UK, 38% in France and 30% in Kenya. This could be because an operating systems design and structure often try to convince the user that their browser is the best in terms of performance and security.
- Another interesting point was that despite the fact that a fair amount of people knew how to change the default browser on their smartphone, very few had actually ever changed their default browser. 65% of Australian respondents knew how to change their default browser but only 36% of the respondents ever changed it. In the US, 47% knew how to change but only 29% did. In the UK, France, India and Kenya, the share of respondents who knew how to change their default web browser was 42%, 49%, 73% and 74%. However, the share of those who had ever changed it was merely 24%, 29%, 59% and 45% respectively.
- The proportion of people who reported that they would be “uncomfortable” with changing their default browser on their smartphone was not very much. Only 15% of Indians and 15% of Kenyan respondents were uncomfortable changing their default browsers. The number was 29% for the US, 28% for the UK, and 28% for France.
- A sizable proportion of respondents said that they would “need help” while changing their default browser or they wouldn’t know how to do it. The cumulative number was 53% in the US, 58% in the UK and 51% in France. For India and Kenya, the numbers were 27% and 26% respectively. The report also noted that “Income, education level, and other demographics did not seem to be associated” with whether or not an individual was likely to change the default browser on their device.
- A majority of people in all the surveyed countries expressed concerns about the collection of data and personal information when using browsers. 70% respondents in Australia, 61% in the US, 63% in the UK, 53% in France, 78% in India and 84% in Kenya said they were concerned about “personal data collection”. Despite such a high number of people reporting they are concerned about their data “this concern did not associate with the likelihood of installing a browser or changing the default browser”, the report noted.
How OS providers control the use of browser engines:
- Browsers pre-installed and set to default – “Operating systems today set their browser as the default and make it difficult or impossible for a vast majority of consumers to change the bundled default, delete the bundled default, and discover and use alternative browsers,” the report says. Until 3030, Apple’s iOS devices lacked settings to switch from Safari to another default browser making it impossible for users to switch, the report says,
- Apple’s control tactics – In 2007, Apple restricted web downloads and required all apps to be installed through the App Store. Moreover, Apple restricted browser engines other than Apple’s own WebKit to be used in iOS browsers. Even Chrome’s IOS version uses Apple’s WebKit browser engine. Firefox was not available on iOS until 2017 and could not be set as default until 2020, according to the report. “Apple’s control tactics cost consumers an entire decade of independent choice, during which Safari became (and remains) the dominant browser used on Apple’s smartphones and mobile devices,” Mozilla mentions in the report.
- Google’s control tactics– Google’s commercial agreement with phone manufacturers made it challenging for rival browsers to gain “pre-installation opportunities”. Moreover, Google has bundled Chrome on Android since 2012, which helped it become the dominant browser it is today.
- Microsoft’s control tactics – Its a common practice for Microsoft to engage in commercial agreements with its OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) to install windows software bundles like Edge, Outlook and Teams. The company also uses tactics which often override the user-selected default browser to use Edge, such as, when someone searches in the Windows search bar. Moreover, it uses a combination of aggressive and subtle design tactics to get users to stick to Edge.
- Twitter and Meta’s webview– When a user opens a link in their Facebook and Twitter app, instead of opening it in the default browser, the webpage will be viewable in the company’s respective app only. To achieve this “in-app experience”, Android developers have to use Google’s WebView technology. This prevents users from accessing an external browser in many cases and Big Tech companies continue to collect data an individual’s browsing.
Part 2: Using online choice architecture to control user choice
Online choice architecture (OCA) refers to the way design affects a person’s decision while browsing the net. It could range from putting text in red or green to nudge the user in a certain direction, to placing the app in a location where the user is most likely to click. It can be used in positive ways to help users make the choice that is best for them, or in negative ways to lead people into making choices that are best for the OS developer.
The report mentions a recent research paper on negative OCA, “…dark patterns are strikingly effective in getting consumers to do what they would not do when confronted with more neutral user interfaces.” Researchers Luguri and Strahilevitz found that, contrary to what might be expected, milder examples of deceptive and unfair practices were much more likely to be effective than more aggressive ones: “…aggressive dark patterns generate a powerful customer backlash whereas mild dark patterns usually do not, the report mentions.
Understanding choice structure
It refers to the way in which choices are structured on a device and can determine things like which apps and settings users can see or are likely to see and how cognitively challenging or time-consuming it is to choose an app or change a setting, Mozilla says in the report.
- The image below shows a boot screen presented by Microsoft to Windows 10 users, which includes an option pre-selected to set Edge as the default browser. The screen also features graphics such as a lock icon that falsely suggests this is a security-related choice for the user, Mozilla notes in the report. In addition to that, the big text on top, which users are most likely to read, nudges people to use “recommended browser settings”
- Below is an image of a message that Windows 11 users were presented with. It is important to note that the “Use Microsoft recommended browser settings” option is not only pre-selected but also highlighted in blue. Moreover, there’s a checkmark on the pre-selected browser while the second option’s text reads – “Don’t update your browser settings” and is represented by a “confusing” icon. The screen includes additional irrelevant security-themed graphics, such as a fingerprint and lock icon, that appear designed to trick the user into thinking this is a security setting, according to Mozilla. “The use of a “Skip for now” (emphasis added) rather than a “Dismiss” option also suggests to users that Windows will continue to present this screen to them unless or until they accede to Microsoft’s recommendations”, Mozilla adds in the report.
Understanding choice information
This refers to the information provided to customers while making choices. Information can be farmed in different ways to achieve certain outcomes or it can be made difficult to understand or access. For example, operating systems make it difficult for consumers to set Firefox as the default browser by “using complex visuals and adding unnecessarily complicated steps” that ordinary customers might not feel technically competent to perform.
- The report gives an example of how it is difficult to change the default browser in iOS14. There is no specific menu where a user can select their default browser; instead, they must click on a browser within the settings menu and then select the option to change the default browser within the list of options for amending that particular browser’s settings, the report states.
Understanding choice pressure
Customers can be pressured into making certain choices using indirect factors such as consumer habits or time pressures. Presenting fake or misleading information, scarcity or popularity claims and messengers (like fake reviews) can be particularly harmful, Mozilla says. These practices affect decision-making in a big way.
- The visual below is shown at the “precise moment when a user is seeking to download an alternative browser. The prompt refers to Edge as the safer, faster browser for Windows 10 and has the option to open Edge in blue, while the button allowing the user to continue their task is greyed-out. This type of practice has been referred to as an “aesthetic manipulation dark pattern” in the report
- The image below demonstrates the message displays an “unexpected advert in the Windows Start menu which asks the user “Still using Firefox? Microsoft Edge is here”. it is designed to nudge the users towards Microsoft’s own product (Edge) which is not set as default for the time being.
Tackling the browser monopoly
Despite the fact that Google, Facebook and Microsoft are providing a good web browsing experience, as is evident from the millions of people who continue to use them, it is important to flag the calculated moves they take to not let users switch to other browsers, like using design architecture discussed above. Mozilla, in its report, urged regulators to take steps to create a competitive environment for other players. If the domination continues, users will only be left with two or three choices for web browsers, which not only see web history and downloads, but also sensitive things passwords, emails and bank account details.
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