If you’re one of the billion-plus users of Google Chrome on Windows, then you should note the serious new warning issued this week. This particular warning is a surprise—because it seems to come on Chrome’s behalf from one of its harshest critics.
2/5 update below, this article was originally published on 2/3.
Google Chrome dominates the worldwide browser market, with approaching 65% of the market to Apple Safari’s less than 20% in second place. Every other alternative, including Microsoft Edge, is just an also-ran.
Microsoft isn’t used to any kind of also-ran status, and in a world where its Windows operating system has an even more dominant desktop market share, a new report suggests it is doing something about this. If you use Chrome on a Windows device, the report warns that your user experience will be badly hit.
The research was sponsored by Mozilla, developer of the Firefox browser which lags a little behind Edge, with a 3.3% versus 5.3% market share. Mozilla commissioned “two independent experts… to investigate Microsoft’s design practices across its core OS (Windows 10 and 11), web browser (Edge), and search engine (Bing).”
“We find,” those experts say, “Microsoft repeatedly using harmful design to influence users into using Edge.” Claims include “harmful preselection, visual interference, trick wording, and disguised ads patterns to skew user choice of which browser to install… Obstruction to dissuade the switch [to a different default browser] and a refusal to switch the corresponding default app for various local web-related filetypes… [and ongoing] “harmful patterns to push the user back towards Edge.”
Mozilla is no fan of Chrome, to say the least. “Chrome is the only major browser that does not offer meaningful protection against cross-site tracking,” it has said of the long-delayed removal of tracking cookies from Chrome. And its website warns that Chrome’s “privacy record is questionable… Google actually collects a disturbingly large amount of data from its users—Google runs the world’s largest advertising network, thanks in large part to data they harvest from their users.”
But the report that Mozilla has just published is not really about Edge competing for users with Firefox. It is all about Chrome. Because, in reality, most Windows users by the numbers will install Chrome. And so it serves as a warning to those users.
With a fresh Windows desktop, users find Edge pre-installed and set as the default. It is also pinned to the taskbar and can’t be uninstalled. If the user decides to install Chrome, the report shows how Microsoft interrupts the install, claiming security and privacy benefits of Edge. The researchers warn that “users may be alarmed when they see the Edge promotional message appear within the Chrome download page, reasoning that since the banner is unusual it must be very important.”
Such interruptions occur whichever browser is being installed. But “if the user is looking to download Google Chrome,” the report says, “Microsoft takes an even more aggressive approach, intervening twice more in the user journey.”
There are other obstructive examples cited in the report, including a survey mid Chrome install, which points again to the benefits of Edge. “We deem this survey and its subsequent page an example of Obstruction,” the report says, “that makes it harder for users to complete Chrome installation.”
In parallel, as seen below, the import of Google data into Edge seems to be presented as a standard setup dialog. User preferences are not highlighted. It’s very easy for a user to click the Apply button with the default settings as shown.
This behavior, the researchers say, begins as soon as a user starts to search for browsers. The report includes multiple examples of ads injected into the search and install process, all of which seem to disrupt the user’s choice based on “inside” knowledge of what they intend to install.
The report isn’t limited to browsers, it also looks at search and cites examples where users are encouraged to shift from Google’s search to Microsoft Bing’s within an alternative browser, such as Chrome—assuming that install was not deterred.
The report acknowledges that “Edge is a relatively minor player. Since Windows is still the dominant OS, it is clear that millions of Windows users have overcome the practices we’ve questioned to successfully download and use Chrome. Microsoft may therefore argue these practices don’t unfairly skew the browser market or user choice.” Google Chrome versus Microsoft Edge doesn’t really represent a genuine David Vs Goliath in any shape or form. But the world has changed, and the other small browsers squaring up to the bigger players, including Firefox, does.
The researchers are based in the UK and tested their various user journeys on Windows 10 Home and Windows 11 Pro. There was no VPN in use, and so their location would have been readily available. As such, it’s not possible to determine from the report how widespread this is across other territories.
But such claims about Microsoft’s push to Edge are not limited to Mozilla’s report, and we have seen other recent complaints about Microsoft’s push to Edge.
Despite this new research, these types of claim are not new, and we have seen similar prompts before, with Microsoft pushing users towards its ecosystem and Google doing the same, warning Edge users to switch to Chrome.
The backdrop to this current story, though, is Europe’s DMA, and the regulations that look to disrupt so-called gatekeepers and gateway platforms from doing exactly this kind of thing. The idea is that default apps can be changed, small players can compete, and house apps can be uninstalled if required.
2/5 update below:
This research report from Mozilla does more to complain about Chrome’s treatment by Microsoft than anything related to Firefox, which is an interesting reversal. Prior Mozilla reports where Chrome is concerned have been much more likely to slam Google than Microsoft, especially where cross-site tracking is concerned.
But it’s all change now, with Google having finally destined those devilish little cross-site tracking cookies to the bin. Or is it?
For those worried about privacy, an article just published by digital marketing site Digiday makes for alarming reading. “Out of all the measured thoughts,” it says, “hot takes and wild guesses about the impending demise of third-party cookies in Google’s Chrome browser this month, there’s one blunt question that’s like a slap of reality: When will marketers finally start caring about these cookies going extinct? Apparently the beginning of the cookies’ end didn’t quite set off the alarm bells.”
Because, while other browsers—including Firefox—have long done the same, when a dominant industry heavyweight the size of Chrome changes the global advertising industry overnight, the industry (and its regulators) sit up and take notice. Especially when that heavyweight sits both sides of the fence—ecosystem gateway and provider of the world’s largest and most valuable digital marketing machine.
Cookies haven’t died yet. They’re being phased out—slowly. “It’s been a month since Google pulled the plug on these cookies on one percent of its browser’s traffic, and the marketing world’s reaction has been rather underwhelming,” says Digiday. “Marketers are chatting about it, but that’s about it. No mad dash to explore alternatives, no frenzied quest to fathom the full scope of the repercussions and they’re still scratching their heads over what this Privacy Sandbox thing even is.”
So, why is that? Regulation. “Why grapple with all these issues on something that might get delayed (again) or even scrapped in a few months? Remember, the U.K. Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) could swoop in, declaring that Google’s sandbox gives them an unfair advantage in the digital ad arena. That would mean a major overhaul or even a complete abandonment of the plan.”
“This looks even more likely,” Digiday says, “following the CMA’s most recent quarterly update on its ongoing investigation into whether the sandbox is anti-competitive. It’s abundantly clear—even if not explicitly stated—that the regulator still holds significant reservations about it.”
We’ve seen similar apathy from the digital media industry, where that same Privacy Sandbox from Google is looking to place “tracking” limits on the number of sites across which a user’s information can be shared.
“Google plans to limit the sharing of reader data by publishers to groups of five sites under its proposed post-cookies regime,” reports Press Gazette. “The media giant is in the process of banning third-party cookies on its dominant Chrome browser platform. Anonymous, untrackable website readers are difficult for publishers to monetize via advertising meaning many fear ad-funded online journalism is facing a fight for survival.”
The issue, reports Press Gazette, is that Google is navigating a tricky path, where its anti-tracking measures adversely impact the wider advertising industry even as Google’s own ad revenues soar. “Google parent company Alphabet this week announced advertising revenue up 11% year-on-year to $65.5bn in the last quarter of 2023 at a time when publishers are seeing falls of a similar level. Declining online ad revenue has seen thousands of newsroom jobs cut over the past year.”
Google told Press Gazette “that every ‘legitimate’ application for RWS has been approved so far. The limit of five is for ‘preventing abuse,’ and that “we wouldn’t expect an average user would traverse the websites of several local newspapers owned by a single publisher during a particular session.”
But the CMA is concerned. “This will become a more urgent issue with scale as more submissions (from media sites) are made,” it has said. “This limitation may affect publishers’ ability to build first-party audience data [and] disproportionately affects sites without access to logged-in users (eg news). Sites with a large proportion of logged-in users (eg Google) are less affected by the restrictions.”
Forget Microsoft promoting Edge to Windows users. If we see any kind of reversal on cross-site tracking, then that will be a much more serious warning for Windows users and the rest of that Chrome-using majority.
And so it might be that the much-needed eradication of cross-site tracking, where Google’s cookie killing is much needed, has further twists to come. Might we see Mozilla return to its more usual critique of Chrome than what we have seen here.
As for this research report, In a blogpost , Mozilla says that “with the implementation of DMA in the European Union marking the start of a wave of global competition regulation, we hoped that the barriers to browser competition would be dismantled. However, even where there is movement in the right direction, improvements have been incomplete and are grudgingly offered only in markets where regulators have forced platform owners to make changes to respect browser choice.”
Mozilla goes on to complain that “Microsoft recently pledged to stop some of the actions it takes to force Edge on users who have selected other browsers… [but] they will only be deployed to users in the EEA.” Windows users everywhere… continue to have their choices inhibited, overridden and undermined by Microsoft’s use of harmful design. Regulatory action around the world is needed to restore browser choice and competition across all of the major platforms.”
I have reached out to Microsoft for a response to the Mozilla report, and to Google for any comments on the reported privacy sandbox apathy and regulatory backdrop.