Most of us use browsers out of habit.
If you surf the web with Microsoft Edge, it may be because you are using Windows. If you use Safari, it’s probably because you’re an Apple customer. If you are a Chrome user, it could be because you have a Google phone or laptop, or you downloaded the Google browser on your personal device after using it on computers at school or at work.
In other words, we turn to the browsers that are easily accessible and familiar. It’s easy to fall into browser inertia because all of these apps are fast, capable, and serve the same purpose: to visit a website.
So if the differences are minimal, why bother looking for something else?
I hope to persuade you to at least try something else: a new type of internet navigator called a private browser. This type of browser, from lesser known brands such as DuckDuckGo and Brave, has emerged in the last three years. What stands out is that they minimize the data collected about us by blocking the technologies used to track us.
We have also reached a turning point in digital privacy. The online advertising industry is on the verge of stopping using web cookies, snippets of code planted in browsers that follow us from side to side and help us target our ads. Google, whose Chrome browser is the most popular in the world, has tried to develop a new way of targeting us without cookies.
Let’s not wait for that. You can decide now that you do not want to be tracked.
“We’re at a fork in the road,” said Gennie Gebhart, director of the Digital Rights Nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which monitors privacy issues. “Companies that keep the light on by advertising to users, including Google, are throwing themselves into seeing what’s the next play. It is also a time for users to be informed and make a choice. ”
Unlike regular browsers, private browsers come in many forms that serve different purposes. For about a week, I tested three of the most popular options – DuckDuckGo, Brave and Firefox Focus. Even I was surprised that I eventually switched to Brave as the default browser on my iPhone. That’s how it happened.
What is a private browser?
It is important to know what private browsers do and what they do not do. So let’s look under the hood.
Private browsers typically have web technologies that have been around for many years:
– They rely on something called private mode, also known as incognito mode, which is a browsing session that does not record a history of the sites you have visited. This is useful if you do not want people with physical access to your device to trick you.
– Private browsers also use tracker blockers, which can often be downloaded as an add-on for a browser. The blockers rely on a list of known trackers that retrieve information about your identity. When you load a website, the software detects these trackers and restricts them from following you from place to place. The major disadvantage of this approach is that blocking them can sometimes destroy parts of websites, such as shopping carts and videos.
Privacy-focused browsers usually turn on private mode by default, or automatically clear the browser log when you close the browser. Browsers also have built-in tracking prevention, which allows them to aggressively block trackers using approaches that minimize site breaches.
But private browsers do not prevent your ISP from seeing which websites you visit. So if you are on holiday and using a hotel’s Wi-Fi connection, a private browser will not keep your browser information private from the hotel’s ISP. For that kind of protection, you still need to connect to a virtual private network, a technology that creates a virtual tunnel that protects your browser information.
Meet the private browsers
Firefox Focus, DuckDuckGo and Brave are all similar, but with some important differences.
Firefox Focus, available only for mobile devices such as iPhones and Android smartphones, is bare bones. You enter a URL, and when done, tap the trash can icon to delete the session. When you quit the app, the history is automatically cleared. When you load a website, your browser relies on a database of trackers to determine which one you want to block.
DuckDuckGo, also available only for mobile devices, is more like a traditional browser. This means you can bookmark your favorite websites and open more browser tabs.
When you use the search box, the browser returns results from the DuckDuckGo search engine, which the company says is more focused on privacy because the ads do not track people’s online behavior. DuckDuckGo also prevents ad trackers from loading. When you have finished surfing, you can tap the flame icon at the bottom to delete the session.
Brave is also more like a traditional browser, with anti-tracking technology and features such as bookmarks and tabs. It includes a private mode that must be turned on if you do not want people to examine your web history.
Brave is also so aggressive in blocking trackers that it almost always blocks ads completely. The other private browsers blocked ads less often.
For most people, not seeing ads is not an advantage. But for those who want to give back to a publisher whose ads are blocked, Brave hosts their own ad network of your choice. In exchange for displaying ads that do not track your behavior, you earn a revenue reduction in the form of a token. You can then choose to give tokens to sites you like. (Only online publishers that have a partnership with Brave can receive tokens.)
Battle for browsers
I tested all three browsers on the iPhone and set each as the default browser for a few days.
Everyone has a button to see how many trackers they blocked when loading a site. To test it, I visited nypost.com, the website of The New York Post, which loaded 83 trackers without tracking prevention. With DuckDuckGo, 15 of the nypost.com trackers were blocked. With Brave, it was 22. And Firefox Focus blocked 47.
But numbers do not tell the whole story. Firefox Focus sometimes broke elements of websites. Some sites could not load videos, and ad windows could not be closed.
Selena Deckelmann, a manager at Mozilla, which makes Firefox, said that the strict privacy protection in Firefox Focus can sometimes lead to websites crashing and that the company worked with web publishers so that their websites could be loaded correctly.
I did not experience major problems when using Brave or DuckDuckGo, although there were occasional hiccups. In one case, when you use DuckDuckGo to browse Wirecutter, a sister publication of the New York Times that tests and recommends products, the names of some products are not fully loaded. While the site was still functional, it looked strange.
Finally, you will probably be happy to use some of the private browsers. Even if you do not make one your default browser, it is useful in certain situations, such as a sensitive web search with health issues.
For me, Brave won with a hair. My favorite sites loaded flawlessly, and I enjoyed the sheer look of ad-free sites, along with the flexibility to choose to see ads whenever I wanted. Brendan Eich, CEO of Brave, said the company’s browser blocked the tracking of cookies “without mercy.”
“If everyone used Brave, it would wipe out the tracking-based advertising economy,” he said.
Count on me.