Privacy-focused web browsers are stuck in a rut, but why?

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With hybrid work on the rise and mismanagement of data continues to dominate the headlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that even the most unsuspecting users would be interested in protecting their privacy online..

However, new data provided to Tech Radar Pro by digital intelligence platform SimilarWeb indicates the growth of privacy-focused veterans browsers MozillaFirefox and Opera is at a standstill.

A rough estimate of Opera’s user acquisition rate (based on traffic to the browser’s install page) suggests that June was a particularly low point, marking a 23.1% decrease in growth rate since the beginning of the year. There have been minor gains since then, but Opera seems to be becoming less and less appealing to new users.

Meanwhile, Firefox fared even worse, perhaps due to the decision to focus on Mozilla-VPN and other privacy products. In August, visits to the browser’s install page were down 7% from January, and its market share (opens in a new tab) (which once stood at 30%) has fallen to just 3.35%.

Raw data shows that Firefox currently attracts only a few hundred thousand new users each month, while Opera attracts around two million. Market leader Google Chrome, however, is thought to be used more than 3.1 billion (opens in a new tab) people.

The Rise of the “Big Default Browser”

The publication of the figures by SimilarWeb coincided with a report (opens in a new tab) published by Mozilla at the end of September 2022 which accused Google, Microsoft and Apple of “abusing their privileged position” to make it “difficult or impossible” for users to change the browsers set as default by the operating system.

Battle lines have already been drawn this year with European Union antitrust law targeting Google, Apple and Meta’s stranglehold on browsers, search engines and other markets. Google also recently failed to overturn €4.34 billion antitrust fine relating to restrictions imposed on manufacturers of Android devices aimed at “consolidating the dominant position of its search engine”, according to a spokesperson for the General Court of the EU.

Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge are both hugely popular defaults that trade almost entirely on brand recognition and their status as default options across multiple operating systems (Chrome on Chromium operating system and Android, and Edge on Windows 11). Other “big flaws” include the macOS and iOS versions of Safari.

“Default settings can create burdens for consumers who prefer to use a browser other than the default, but cannot or do not know how to change their default. From our research, we know that some consumers adopt unnecessarily cumbersome workarounds to stick to their preferences,” the Mozilla report claims.

Mozilla’s report offers some explanation as to why operating system vendors pursue such strategies, stating that developers of “fat by default” browsers can profit from user data.

“Although consumers don’t pay to use browsers, their browsing history is valuable data for platforms with advertising companies like Meta, Amazon, Google and Microsoft. It’s no coincidence that many of these companies have yet to implement robust anti-tracking technologies in their browsers or discourage third-party cookies,” Mozilla said.

However, the company also acknowledged that Big Tech’s motives go beyond data collection: Operators of “big default” browsers earn significant sums from ads served to blocked users in their proprietary search engines.

“Google Chrome is captive to Google Search (powered by Google advertising) and Microsoft Edge is captive to Bing search (powered by Microsoft advertising). Independent browsers are the only companies that can freely consider search flaws on behalf of They are also among the few companies encouraging the discovery, evaluation, adoption and innovation of alternative search and advertising experiences.

Illustration of a fingerprint on a browser

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Choice of browser

Although Mozilla and Opera have struggled lately, an enduring demand for “alternative” web browsers is supported by separate data from SimilarWeb.

From January to August, the privacy-focused Brave Browser saw its estimated monthly downloads increase by 272%. Admittedly, Brave only saw 17,827 and 66,340 visits to its install page during those months, respectively, but that’s a significant growth rate nonetheless.

These numbers suggest that the continued success of “big flaws” browsers is likely not just the result of the removal of alternatives, but also a function of user apathy and brand recognition.

While Big Tech pursues pure profit, privacy-focused browsers may just be fighting each other. The growth in Brave installs this year suggests that Mozilla Firefox and Opera are losing market share to newer options, such as Brave and DuckDuckGo’s new privacy browser (for which we currently have no data).

Above all, the statistics also suggest that the push for web browser privacy may be a small movement, but one that is still capable of gaining momentum.

Apple’s decision to allow users to change their default browser in iOS 14 is welcome in the fight to make consumers care about their privacy online, but the first step towards full browser independence is to abolish the idea of ​​flaws altogether – something that might never happen with Apple now has its own “big flaw” on the most popular mobile operating system in the United States.

As things stand, Mozilla may have made the mistake of assuming that every “default” browser user is a potential convert. User apathy will always play into the hands of big, powerful companies; even without the removal tactics, “big by default” browsers would still trump indie alternatives in terms of monthly growth.

With a solution like prompting users to choose their own default browser from a list of privacy-focused alternatives, along with simple, reasoned arguments for doing so, that apathy could diminish. It’s just that legislating for something like that seems unthinkable to most legislators outside the European Union.

web browsers

Shutterstock / Robuart (Image credit: Shutterstock / Robuart)

Mozilla, DuckDuckGo and eleven other companies recently lobbied the US Congress to introduce a data privacy bill that would address Big Tech monopolies, default browsers and unfettered data collection, but the odds the movement leads anywhere are slim, thanks to Big Tech. lobbying resources.

Further, the lack of regulation surrounding “revolving doors” (whereby politicians leave office, often for corporate positions, and use their connections to curry favor with lawmakers) in jurisdictions such as the UK and Australia This means that legislating privacy on the web and freedom of choice for anonymous browsers can be an extremely slow process, if not an entirely insurmountable problem.

Would privacy-focused browsers grow more evenly if users had the ability to make an informed choice between them? The problem right now is that we may never know.

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