browser wars

My Broken Browser Broke My Already Broken Brain

Photo: Preechar Bowonkitwanchai/Getty Images

In “Big Yellow Taxi” Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.” I have to say, I agree. On Sunday afternoon, I opened up my laptop computer and clicked on Firefox, my browser of choice. I had not used my laptop since Friday evening, but I could immediately sense that something was off. I had to log back in to websites that should’ve remembered me. The web pages I visited seemed more crowded with elements and overlays than usual. YouTube was showing me pre-roll ads.

Eventually, I figured out that the cause of this was that all of my browser extensions had been killed off in one fell swoop. According to Bleeping Computer, “An intermediate signing certificate used to sign Mozilla addons expired on 5/4/19 at midnight UTC. As Mozilla addons have to be signed in order to be used in Firefox, once a computer reached that time the browser automatically disabled the addons.” A signing certificate is a file that confirms that an extension is safe to use, and all extensions Mozilla offers through its website require it. The certificate needs to be renewed to stay up to date, and this one wasn’t. Mozilla employees apparently worked through the weekend, pushing a temporary hotfix and then eventually getting an official fix out with software version 66.0.4. Meanwhile, Firefox’s Twitter account spent the weekend apologizing to frustrated users threatening to switch to Google Chrome.

The experience taught me something very important about myself. Apparently, over the past year or so, I have become cripplingly reliant on desktop web-browser extensions, a software category that seems more of a curiosity than a full-fledged sector. I have, to be honest, a moderately insane setup; allow me to walk you through it. There are four essential browser extensions I use, and you will find me increasingly unbearable as I explain each one. All of these are in the service of trying to hide myself from the companies whose business relies on following me around the web.

I use an ad-blocker, like many people, because it just makes using the web slightly more tolerable. In general, I am fine with the concept of banner ads and whatever, but I hate the concept of trackers following me around the web and want to interfere with that however I can. (If my boss is reading this: Obviously, I have whitelisted the wonderful New York Magazine family of sites, so that ads appear on their many wonderful articles.)

I also use 1Password as my password manager, and all of my logins are unique and most of them are randomly generated. That means that I am reliant on its browser extension if I don’t want to manually cut and paste my credentials every time I log in to a website.

But why would I have to constantly log in to websites? Couldn’t I just click the “remember me” box? Maybe … if I were a fool. Oftentimes I use 1Password to log in to websites because I use yet another extension, Cookie AutoDelete, to wipe my browser’s cookies every 15 seconds. I have sites I visit often whitelisted so that those cookies don’t wipe, but everything else gets jettisoned on a regular interval.

Wiping cookies constantly makes it more difficult for services to track you across different websites, but it’s not enough for me, which is why I also use an extension made by Mozilla called Containers. The idea of containers is that they silo certain websites and domains from others. The most obvious example of this concept is a container made specifically for Facebook’s websites. With the extension active, it’s basically as if you’re opening Facebook in a completely separate browser. I also have a container for Google’s sites, another one for Amazon and e-commerce, and then a couple of other ones too. They work automatically, so a link to Facebook will automatically open up in the Facebook silo. When these are coupled with the cookie-deleting automation, trackers have a tougher time following me around.

So I block trackers, delete trackers on a regular basis, and the ones I can’t block because they are required for functionality get locked in a separate cell from everything else. (And, of course, I’ll freely admit that it doesn’t really matter because I’ve also got Facebook’s and Google’s mobile apps installed on my iPhone, where they can easily keep tabs on my device.) I understand, and want to reiterate, that this is a bonkers setup for anyone to have in place — but it’s also bonkers that this setup is required at all under our current regime of surveillance capitalism. For a long time, tech companies and ad networks took advantage of widespread naïveté to build large-scale tracking tools and data brokerages. I guess if it’s impossible to get the toothpaste back in the tube, I might as well try to prevent any more from getting out. It’s a way of trying to take back a little bit of control.

The World Wide Web is a messy tangle of systems stacked on top of one another in a haphazard manner, and so is the solution I’ve concocted to wrest some control. Compare that with smartphones, which have sandboxed apps (prevented from accessing data and features in certain parts of the device), and privacy functions built into the operating system that make privacy an afterthought. The price of an unregulated web is that there is not a one-click setting to let users control their experience. If everyone were on the level, it wouldn’t be a huge issue, but ad networks and platforms have utilized more invasive and aggressive tactics (e.g., Facebook knows not just when you visit Facebook but also any site with a Facebook button embedded on it), and users have had to jerry-rig solutions for them. Nobody should feel like they need the virtual equivalent of a hazmat suit to browse the web. The fact that I feel the need to protect myself from the main functions of some of the largest tech companies, and that an expired file could undo all of that preparation, is confounding.

So all of these extensions broke all at once because a digital certificate expired, and I had no idea what to do about it. There was nothing I could do about it, except wait. I mean, I could’ve logged back in to all of these sites, but I didn’t want to do that (because of the tracking?). And even if I wanted to, the 1Password extension was broken, so I couldn’t fill out logins too easily anyway. My Wi-Fi could’ve died and I would’ve felt less helpless than I did when Firefox went haywire on me. I couldn’t believe the browser-settings hell I’d voluntarily stepped into, and I couldn’t believe that I cared about it enough to be frustrated either.

Anyway, I read a book instead. It was a hard copy. It was nice. The Firefox problem was fixed a few hours later, and I restored all of my settings and was back in my insane browser fortress once again.

My Broken Browser Broke My Already Broken Brain