Here’s an intriguing fact: though Google Chrome is the dominant web browser, with 63.84% of the global market share, most devices don’t have it preinstalled.
This means a large majority of web users intentionally go out of their way to download Google Chrome rather than use the default browser handed to them by their Operating Systems.
My question, then, is this: why Chrome?
I’ve written before about problems I have with Chrome’s privacy practices, but I felt like I should take a moment to acknowledge all the good things about it before I tackle the glaring issues.
For as much trouble as I give it, Google Chrome is a fantastic piece of software. It balances the needs of the coders and users of websites, pushes the browser industry forward, and has revolutionized the way we look at the internet.
Here are some of my favorite things about Chrome:
- Feature Support – Chrome usually supports all the new features of the web’s coding languages before anyone else.
- Extensions – Chrome developed the standard for how browser extensions work that is now almost ubiquitous among browsers.
- Consistent – The Chrome experience is generally consistent across devices and operating systems. (Except for iOS—but that’s Apple’s fault and is a story for another time.) To me, this means I can recommend people a feature and know that whatever operating systems they use will likely be the same.
However, there’s a feature that has genuinely made Chrome extraordinary: it’s open-source.
Well, sort of. Chrome is built on Chromium, an open-source browser (funded and developed by Google) that others can take and adapt. From Chromium has sprung Opera, Microsoft Edge, Vivaldi, Comodo Dragon, and—the Chromium-based browser I’ve been recommending for years—Brave. These browsers have the same look and feel, features, extension support, and underlying code as Google Chrome—except for parts the designers intentionally disable.
Chromium means that everything I love about Chrome can be packaged together, leaving the bad parts out and adding new features.
Let’s face it—no other browser makes it this easy. Even Firefox, the poster child of open source web browsers, doesn’t make it this easy.
Making Chromium open source may have been the best decision Google has made; it’s certainly the one I respect the most.
Why NOT Chrome?
Despite all this praise of Chrome—which is sincere—it has some fundamental issues.
Here’s the biggest: when it comes to your privacy, Chrome has a conflict of interest. It is, of course, owned by Google, which is a company that has historically made the vast majority of its profits through ad revenue. The secret ingredient that makes their advertising campaigns so profitable? User data.
Last week, we took a look at all the ways Google can track you and why that matters. Long story short, there are ways to keep companies like Google from being as invasive, but they require specific browser settings.
As the browser of potentially the most profitable advertising company ever, Chrome does not come with those browser settings enabled. On the contrary, it will often make it downright difficult or impossible to enable them.
That’s why I never recommend Google Chrome itself.
What should we use instead?
People who know me might know that I used to consider myself a “browser connoisseur,” a title rarely encountered in everyday conversation. I would download every browser I found—even the weirder ones like SpaceTime (DO NOT USE), Lunascape (not great), and Lynx (actually pretty cool)—and test them out, comparing and forming opinions.
After all this comparison, I settled on the Brave browser as the best in the business, using it nearly exclusively and recommending it to everyone, both in person and on this site.
In March of 2021, I thought I should give Firefox a more serious try and decided to spend a whole month using it exclusively.
It’s been over ten months, and I have yet to switch back. It’s honestly pretty great.
What’s special about Brave and Firefox?
From the perspective of our search for a privacy-respecting browser, Brave and Firefox are both excellent options. Brave, in particular, enables all the privacy features by default. While Firefox doesn’t, it’s extremely easy to enable them, and in some cases, there are even more options to protect your privacy.
For most people, who just want to get started in a good browser with minimal customization, I recommend you choose Brave.
Here’s what I love about Brave:
- Chromium-based – Since Brave is based on Chromium (which we discussed earlier), it has a very similar feel to Chrome and can even import all your bookmarks, passwords, and history from it. That way, it’ll only take a few minutes to switch to Brave from Chrome, and it won’t take long to get used to it, given the similar features.
- Privacy-focused – Brave automatically blocks all ads and trackers (including YouTube ads!). There are settings to improve your privacy a bit, but at that point, you’re running the risk of breaking websites. It also disables some of the more concerning features of Chrome, such as FLoC.
- Brave rewards – I’m not sure if I consider this a plus or not, but it deserves mention. Brave realizes that blocking ads robs websites of valuable revenue, so they offer their own “privacy-respecting” ads. 70% of the revenue goes back to you in the form of Basic Attention Tokens, which you are encouraged to donate to the websites you use the most. It only works on websites that have signed up for the Brave Creators program, but that includes websites like Wikipedia and Khan Academy.
If you’ve historically been a Chrome user, I definitely recommend you check out Brave. It’s worth the ten minutes it takes to set up. And if there are features you don’t like about it, you can usually find a way to disable them.
Here’s what’s great about Firefox:
Not funded by Google – Honestly, this is the reason some people switch to it. Even Chromium-based browsers like Brave are built on a platform funded by ad revenue and user data. Firefox is owned by Mozilla, a company focused on building a better web. (Well, Mozilla does get a large amount of revenue from setting Firefox’s default search engine to Google. I recommend you change your search engine to something else; I use Brave Search.)
Extremely customizable – Firefox has a “Customize Toolbar” option, which goes way further than anything in Chrome. You can literally drag around everything in the toolbar, including search bars, icons for extra features, spacers, and more. You can access it by right-clicking on the toolbar and selecting “Customize Toolbar.” (This might be my favorite feature.)
Aesthetics – While I can’t pinpoint why, I find Firefox is more visually appealing and elegant than Chrome.
A guide to adjusting to Firefox for Chrome users
Firefox has fewer privacy features enabled by default (though it does have quite a few), so here are the settings I recommend changing:
- Go to the “Privacy and Security” tab of the preferences page.
- Change the “Enhanced Tracking Protection” setting to “Strict.”
- Scroll down until you get to “Firefox Data Collection and Use”
- Deselect “Allow Firefox to send technical and interaction data to Mozilla” and “Allow Firefox to install and run studies.”
- Consider enabling “HTTPS-only mode,” which automatically upgrades sites to HTTPS if they support it and asks before loading sites that don’t. I find it useful, but it does get annoying if you regularly visit a non-HTTPS site.
Here are the features I missed when switching from Chrome:
- No tab groups! – Okay, this is the one I was saddest about. Before I made the switch, I’d discovered a Chromium feature: tab groups. Using it, you can group tabs into different categories that you can expand and hide at will. Since then, I’ve discovered the “Simple Tab Groups” addon that I actually like better. You can even set different groups to have separate sets of cookies!
- Lower Addon availability – Not much to this one; it’s simple. The Firefox addon store has fewer extensions available than the Chrome web store. Of course, most of the significant extensions are on both, so it’s not a huge deal. I plan to port my own Umify over to Firefox when I have time.
At first, I was disappointed by what seemed to be fewer shortcuts, but I found workarounds. Here they are, for your benefit:
- Swiping with two fingers to go back or forward in history – Instead, use alt+[left arrow] and alt+[right arrow]. It’s less intuitive but kinda easier now that I think about it; the keys are right next to each other, and I love being able to navigate the web with mostly my keyboard. Holding alt and scrolling also will go through the history, though that’s more useful if you have a mouse.
- ctrl+[number] to switch tabs – So this actually does work on Windows, but on Linux, it wouldn’t. After a bit of experimentation, I found out that alt+[number] works instead. Not sure what works on Mac, but one of those probably does.
Here are my favorite Firefox Addons:
- Simple Tab Groups – I explained this one above; it lets you separate your tabs into groups and show/hide only the ones you want. I recommend setting it to suspend hidden tabs to save RAM and battery power.
- Stylus – If you know a bit of coding, Stylus lets you write your own CSS styles to make websites the way you want. They also have a website where you can browse other people’s styles, though it’s not as extensive as Stylish’s. As a coder, I prefer writing my own.
- ClearURLs – One way Google and similar websites track you is to add extra bits to URLs to tell them where you followed the link from and some other information. This extension will automatically remove those bits from the links you visit!
- AdBlocker for YouTube™ – Pretty straightforward; it blocks YouTube ads.
Soon, I’ll be writing a dedicated article on my new favorite, Buster.
One final thing to try—if you’re planning to travel and want to leave some articles open to browse without wifi, you can put Firefox in Offline Mode! (Press alt/option to show the menu, then select File ⇒ Work Offline.)
Things to think about
I recommend trying out browsers for yourself rather than just relying on what I’ve said here. Blog posts listing the best examples of things often do more harm than good—the authors usually don’t even give most of the options an honest try.
That’s why I only recommended two browsers here; they’re the only two good browsers I’ve actually used for a significant portion of time. I didn’t find others good enough to keep using, but that doesn’t mean other people won’t like them.
So, here are some things to think about when looking at a browser for yourself:
- Look to see if it has privacy settings; if it doesn’t, it probably isn’t thinking about keeping you safe from websites that don’t mean well.
- Try and figure out how the company that owns it makes money. Brave, for example, makes money from its Brave Rewards program and Firefox from Google for setting Google Search as the default search engine and donations to the nonprofit part of Mozilla.
- Try playing around with its features. Most browsers have something that sets them apart; figure out what that is.
When looking to improve our privacy on the web, we need to make sure we have good web browsers as a foundation.
Chrome is a fantastic browser that has revolutionized the way we view the internet, but it has a conflict of interest when it comes to privacy. Luckily, Google did make most of its code open source, so we can use other browsers like Brave that keep its positive qualities while adding their own.
However, some alternatives don’t use Chrome’s code at all. Firefox is the dominant one and my personal choice. Both Firefox and Brave are excellent choices, and you should try them both. (That’s your application point for this article.)
This article is part of a series on digital citizenship, the way we live in a technology-saturated world, which you might enjoy reading in order from the beginning.