Thinking outside the browser

Even if you’re on a phone, chances are you’re reading this in a browser.

Chances are also that most of what you do online is through a browser.

Hell, many—maybe even most—of the apps you use on your phone use the Webkit browser engine. Meaning they’re browsers too.

And, of course, I’m writing this in a browser.

Which, alas, is subordinate by design. That’s because, while the Internet at its base is a word-wide collection of peers, the Web that runs on it is a collection of servers to which we are mere clients. The model is an old mainframe one called client-server. This is actually more of a calf-cow arrangement than a peer-to-peer one:

The reason we don’t feel like cattle is that the base functions of a browser work fine, and misdirect us away from the actual subordination of personal agency and autonomy that’s also taking place.

See, the Web invented by Tim Berners-Lee was just a way for one person to look at another’s documents over the Internet. And that it still is. When you “go to” or “visit” a website, you don’t go anywhere. Instead, you request a file. Even when you’re watching or listening to an audio or video stream, what actually happens is that a file unfurls itself into your browser.

What you typically expect when you go to a website is typically the file called a page. You also expect that page will bring a payload of other files: ones providing graphics, video clips, or whatever. You might also expect the site to remember that you’ve been there before, or that you’re a subscriber to the site’s services.

You may also understand that the site remembers you because your browser carries a “cookie” the site put there, to helps the site remember what’s called “state,” so the browser and the site can renew their acquaintance with every visit. It is for this simple purpose that Lou Montulli invented the cookie in the first place, back in 1994. Lou got that idea because the client-server model puts the most agency on the server’s side, and in the dial-up world of the time, that made the most sense.

Alas, even though we now live in a world where there can be boundless intelligence on the individual’s side, and there is far more capacious communication bandwidth between network nodes, damn near everyone continues to presume a near-absolute power asymmetry between clients and servers, calves and cows, people and sites. It’s also why today when you go to a site and it asks you to accept its use of cookies, something unknown to you (presumably—you can’t tell) remembers that “agreement” and its settings, and you don’t—even though there is no reason why you shouldn’t or couldn’t. It doesn’t even occur to the inventors and maintainers of cookie acceptance systems that a mere “user” should have a way to record, revisit or audit the “agreement.” All they want is what the law now requires of them: your “consent.”

This near-absolute power asymmetry between the Web’s calves and cows is also why you typically get a vast payload of spyware when your browser simply asks to see whatever it is you actually want from the website.  To see how big that payload can be, I highly recommend a tool called PageXray, from Fou Analytics, run by Dr. Augustine Fou (aka @acfou). For a test run, try PageXray on the Daily Mail’s U.S. home page, and you’ll see that you’re also getting this huge payload of stuff you didn’t ask for:

Adserver Requests: 756
Tracking Requests: 492
Other Requests: 184

The visualization looks like this:

This is how, as Richard Whitt perfectly puts it, “the browser is actually browsing us.”

All those requests, most of which are for personal data of some kind, come in the form of cookies and similar files. The visual above shows how information about you spreads out to a nearly countless number of third parties and dependents on those. And, while these cookies are stored by your browser, they are meant to be readable only by the server or one or more of its third parties.

This is the icky heart of the e-commerce “ecosystem” today.

By the way, and to be fair, two of the browsers in the graphic above—Epic and Tor—by default disclose as little as possible about you and your equipment to the sites you visit. Others have privacy features and settings. But getting past the whole calf-cow system is the real problem we need to solve.

Cross-posted at the Customer Commons blog, here.


  1. Todd Bonnewell

    It’s important to consider the browser a tool, and what it is capable and incapable of. Then, based on your desires, use the tool as intended, or hack a new way for the tool to achieve your goal. Let’s not give too much credence to something that is simply a tool. Rather, let’s focus on the human problem and use our tools to solve them in a way to sets people free.

    What’s your goal? What problem are you trying to solve? The problem is NOT the browser. The solution could contain the browser, or not, but the browser is NOT the solution either. Focusing on the browser, the way you are, is not productive.

    The goal should be to own your data. Period. To have any other conversation at this point is an exercise in – PATIENCE.

    So the question becomes, how can the browser, as a tool, help you to own your data? This where we peek into the rabbit hole, to see that the browser is just one of many tools to carry out this coup. And in many ways, the least important, but as it will appear, critical to the process.

    We tend to hold onto our past. Putting too much value on past things – like data. The browser will allow us to bridge the gap and to make the transition, to owning our data, painless. The browser will soon become a tool that we rarely interact with in a traditional sense. We will use browsers to automate our interactions; to reach out into the old world without giving up what they desire – our attention.

    We will primarily interact with our data through interfaces that adapt to our identity. These interfaces will interact with browsers – we, the people, will not.

    So, let’s not just escape the “browser box” and think we have found some unique perspective, while still serving our data masters. Let’s hack the browser for what we need it for, then discard it. It’s a tool. Let’s not love something that can’t love us back – but let’s properly honor the thing that sets us free. In due time.

    • Doc Searls

      Thanks, Todd.

      I’m focusing on the browser because, while necessary for almost everything we do on the Web, it is insufficient for countless purposes that can’t be imagined if all we think we have to work with is a browser.

      I think personal data matters hugely, and your points are important. But the primary issue is agency: the power to act with effect in the world. And that’s not just about data.

      We need tools that express agency, that give us archimedean leverage. Perhaps browsers can be made to do that, but so far they haven’t.

      And why have just one tool in our shed? We should have many. That’s my main point here. It’s also just my first. I’ll be making more, so watch this space.

  2. S.Swaminathan

    Lovely article, Doc. Just tell us we are in a locked-in eco-system with no control whatsoever of our identity, data. I call this “Vacuum Cleaner” model where browsers suck the data and information about us and they monetise our information & our behaviour. It’s time to put customer at the centre of the internet and not brokers or traders of information in the centre.

    • Doc Searls


      Putting the customer at the center is what our community here has been about from the start.

      The challenge for that is equipping customers with tools of their own that give them both independence and better ways to engage. Not just to regulate the vacuum cleaners of the world (which, while necessary, is hugely insufficient).
      As a calf by design, the browser does not offer easy ways for the individual to operate outside the power of the Web’s cows (and, by your fine metaphor, their vacuum cleaners). And, for engagement, pretty much all we have are tools provided by the ranches (posts on Facebook, tweets on Twitter) or, far more sparsely, on personal blogs. (Though still, in the meat-space physical world of retailers, by showing up.) We need to do better. Much better.

      We’ll be talking out those better possibilities in a few weeks, at VRM/CuCo Day (free) and for the following three days at IIW (cheap, as conferences go, and highly leveraged: this will be our 32nd). Join us at one or both.

      Also watch for more posts here on this topic between now and those events.

  3. Todd Bonnewell

    Why have only one tool? Because it might be the only one you ever need, perfect for the job. Are you advocating tools for the sake of tools? I’m not trying to count tools, I am trying to solve problems.

    Again, as I obviously failed to make this point, the issue IS data ownership. Somehow, you decided to leave off ‘ownership’ in your response; I am not advocating for ‘personal data’ (whatever that means) but rather for ‘data ownership’. We need a tool to manage OUR data. With a proper tool, 3rd parties will cease to exist.

    Focusing on the thing we have, that is broken, is to assume that thing is worth fixing and is not the cause of countless other problems. An obtuse perspective.

    I’ll keep an eye on this space for one or two more articles, but you are consistently banging on the wrong doors and somehow validated by the old guards. It’s unfortunate and the only reason anyone should need to stop paying you any attention. With all due respect, of course.

  4. Todd Bonnewell

    I just read this quote in your other comment, and it PERFECTLY sums up the problem with your perspective:

    “Putting the customer at the center is what our community here has been about from the start.”

    Most see that and assume you are advocating for the person, but you are actually advocating for the business. The word ‘customer’ assumes a position in a transaction. It also assumes the capitalistic condition of said transaction. It doesn’t put the person first, it puts the corporation first. The corporation gets to maintain its power position. This is why Harvard allows you to exist in its sphere. This is why the old (white) guards encourage you. This is the problem and you are perpetuating it.

    The solution comes rather easily when the problem is reframed. You should advocate for data ownership because it allows for the future innovation that is necessary. Everything you do seems to allow the powers that be to hold onto that power for as long as possible. These weak incremental steps aren’t going to get the people to where they need to be. But it will keep that money and accolades flowing for some.

    Sometimes bad solutions are worse than the original problem.

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