The Moral Dilemma in Your Browser

The Moral Dilemma in Your Browser

As an intrepid internet ingenue (as if!), I’ve been trying to get a fix on the events down south over the past few weeks – as no doubt most of you have, as well. One way I like to keep tabs on the goings-on in the Arab world is through Google Translate, so I visited the site, typing in likely looking terms in English (“Arab” + “Youth” + “Twitter,” for instance), clicking on the “translate from English to Arabic” button, and getting the squiggly lines that represent that phrase in Arabic. Then I copied and pasted the URL of the results page (all in Arabic, of course) into Google Translate, and instructed the service to translate from Arabic to English – and voila, I was able to see what Arab news and information sites think about the use of Twitter in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, among other issues.

As I copied and pasted, I kept noticing a little box on the right side of the screen, urging me to “Try a new browser with automatic translation.” Normally, I brush off exhortations such as these – if there were a better way to do it, would I not know about it already? And in fact, brush it off I did for many days – until I noticed that there was a blue button below the tag line, instructing me to “Download Google Chrome.”

Now, you’d think a button like that would be hard to miss, but to Google’s credit, they aren’t pushy about pushing the message on Chrome, now in version 9 (it’s been around since 2006) – the message and button are on the far right of the screen, and the translate box is on the left side, so you really may miss them if you’re working quickly.

On a lark, I figured – why not? It’s not like I hadn’t used Chrome before; I had, but went back to my regular use of Firefox, which, for years, was the “anti-browser,” the “young upstart” vying for its place in the sun against (grrrrr) Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Besides, Chrome wasn’t as complete as Firefox – it didn’t have many of the extensions and add-ons I’ve come to depend on. But I figured that I could use Chrome for its automatic translation feature when I’m reading foreign language web sites. No rule I couldn’t keep two browsers open on my machine (in fact, I already had IE and/or Safari open along with Firefox, depending on if I was working on a PC or Mac).

So download and install Chrome I did – and immediately a moral dilemma, perhaps one of the most serious I’ve had to deal with in my online life, showed itself. Do I dump Firefox, my loyal worker for years, and go over to the new “dark side” – Google – and switch to Chrome altogether? Because from the first minute, Chrome outclassed Firefox in almost every way!

It seems I’m not alone in “discovering” Chrome, it seems; according to the people who keep track of these things, Chrome, for the first, reached to 10% market share in January, while Firefox continued its 7 month decline (the most popular browser, FF still has a quarter of market share). And veteran FF users, who are used to the crashes, slowness, and memory waste of the program, are attracted by Chrome’s must smoother performance, and numerous features that make it easier to get work done, too numerous to go into (I suggest users just download and install Chrome – but read to the end before you do).

And the bare-bones Chrome I remember from a few years ago is gone; the Chrome extension store had a version of every one of the extensions I had come to depend on in Firefox. There’s a lot less crashing in Chrome (in fact, it hasn’t crashed once in the several weeks I’ve been using it), and my Macbook’s memory usage, according to the little extension that keeps an eye on it, has fallen dramatically. So Chrome has turned out to be a good move.

However: Using Chrome, it has occurred to me, could be hazardous to one’s privacy. After all, this is Google we’re talking about – the people who have the dibs on just about everything we think and do online these days. How does Google know us? Let me count the ways: The cookies we get when we do a web search using Google help the company zone in on the ads they should be flashing at us, based on our demographics; their textual analysis of keywords in Gmail enhance the process; and now, with Chrome, you have the opportunity to let Google know about your surfing habits even when you don’t use their search engine!

Of course, you could say that it doesn’t matter – that Google already knows more than enough about us anyway, and they haven’t abused our trust yet. We use so many Google services already – translation, Gmail, Google toolbar, Google news, etc. – that they probably already have a pretty complete consumer profile about us already. But what does it say about the morality of people like us – those who migrated from Internet Explorer in order to deny Microsoft a “monopoly,” and are now abandoning Firefox, the “outsider?” Is not Google the new Microsoft – the new “big bully” that is bent on taking over the (computing) world, as Microsoft hoped to? Are we that shallow, that we abandon our principles for a browser that works a bit (okay, a lot!) faster? Would “hypocrite” be too strong a label? Unfortunately, today, I have only questions – but no answers!?

PS: Firefox may yet be able to stage a comeback; the beta of Firefox 4 is out, and hope is running high that the final product will restore Firefox to the snappy performer it once was. Those who wish can download it and check out its performance.

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