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Chrome, the perfect antitrust villain? (alexdanco.com)
244 points by rargulati 23 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 150 comments



The main problem I have with the predominant discussions around antitrust in contemporary internet software is that they largely ignore one quality that truly makes something a monopoply. That is, truly onerous monopolies don't just own a vast majority of some market share. They hamper the ability to switch to another product. Facebook, Google Search and Chrome, the most discussed products in current antitrust discussions all have viable quality alternatives.

Don't like Chrome? Pick up Firefox, it's quick and easy to change. And it's the best product it's probably ever been.

Don't like Google search? There's Bing, there's DuckDuckGo and more.

Don't like Facebook? Try any of the bajillion other social networks. Hell, quite social networks and call your grandma instead. It's better for ya.

Antitrust isn't supposed to be a bludgeon to knock whoever is on top off the top. It's supposed to be a tool to break open markets where companies have successfully closed off competition and made it impossible for opponents to succeed. I just don't see that in the web right now. There is no conceivable reason Facebook couldn't be replaced and there's ample research showing that young people are already making that transition to other platforms.

Meanwhile, industries like internet service, cellular and in some places water provision, leave consumers with essentially no alternative and no choice. I see this wave of anti-web 2.0 furvor as people championing a good cause, antitrust, in utterly the wrong place for our time.


> That is, truly onerous monopolies don't just own a vast majority of some market share. They hamper the ability to switch to another product.

The article explains how Google through Chrome's dominance is doing and did exactly this via webstandards for DRM despite most of chrome being completely open-source via chromium.

Because Chrome has such a large footprint, it become much easier for google to make a non-standard feature become part of the standard. As long as there is a thoroughly unencumbered but still practically reasonable way to implement that standard everything is great.

But that falls apart for the DRM that enables browsers to play video files. Sure, google is willing to license that code to you, but that means you have to pay or play by their rules in order to keep being able to make a competing browser. And no, you can't just make your own version of the DRM: https://boingboing.net/2019/05/29/hoarding-software-freedom....

That's bad enough for hampering the ability for people to switch products, because it means that people can't make a practical chrome competitor without becoming a google vassal, which defeats many of their reasons to making a competing browser. But it gets worse.

If google makes a change to chrome that people dislike, say hampering ad-blocking via some as-yet-unstandardized change or pushing through a standard that most people dislike, they can then tie the licensing of the unrelated feature to implementing this other thing that people dislike.

For example, Google could refuse to license the DRM code to any browser that interferes with or modifies the playback of the DRMed video stream. Then, they could define modification and interference to include removing ads from the stream.

Or google could just decline to license at all for no reason: https://blog.samuelmaddock.com/posts/google-widevine-blocked...


> The article explains how Google through Chrome's dominance is doing and did exactly this via webstandards for DRM despite most of chrome being completely open-source via chromium.

Yes, but it also fails to make much of an antitrust case about this. I mean, is Widevine licensing anticompetitive? Discriminatory? Surely it would be hard to make a competitor for it. But at the same time Apple and HBO seem to be streaming a ton of content without it.

The harm to open source media playback is real, but that's not an argument about market health. Frankly I'm pretty doubtful much antitrust hay can be made about this. We watch Microsoft choke Netscape to death in the 90's, and at the end of the day nothing happened. Maybe Google will be forced to spin off the Widevine IP to a separate company, I guess. No one is going to kill Chrome for you.


Come on, HBO is literally listed on widevine.com as a user of the product (this asset is like halfway down widevine.com: https://www.widevine.com/assets/img/logo-hbo.png), and there's an iOS sdk for widevine as well, so iOS apps are using widevine too, so no, neither is streaming a ton without it, unless you mean how Apple themselves went and made an entire competing ecosystem that depends not just on a competing DRM standard (Fairplay), but competing apps and playback devices. That's not a great argument for Google to make that they don't have a monopoly status for web streaming: "No, you honor, it's simple. You can't totally make a competing browser to stream media. You just have to make an entirely separate device with a custom OS using customized hardware and a customezed digital store for people to browse to using your code. Simple!"

I didn't argue widevine licensing was anticompetitive on its own. I said how Google grants licenses and the terms of the license is part of a larger strategy on Google's part to hamper the ability of consumers to switch away from Chrome.


> Apple themselves went and made an entire competing ecosystem that depends not just on a competing DRM standard (Fairplay), but competing apps and playback devices.

Yes! Exactly. And the fact that Apple was successful doing that is sort of a killer argument against an antitrust case.

Look, antitrust isn't about enforcing your personal idea of a perfect browser ecosystem. It's about protecting the competetive efficiency of the market by guaranteeing that new and smaller players (and new technologies) don't see an unfair barrier to entry.

Your argument is just that Chrome is an unhealthy monoculture ecosystem. I even agree. But that's not an antitrust case and you need to stop pretending that someone is going to come around and rule Chrome illegal for you. The arguments I've seen are all very narrow and will have very narrow remedies.


The unfair barrier to entry is that in order to compete at making a browser the competitor has to build much, much more than just a browser. The fact that it was apple that was successful in building an also-ran competitor isn't helpful for google, because Apple's size allows other companies to argue that unless they are as large as google or apple, they cannot compete at all, which means new or smaller players can't fairly compete.

If the goal is to build a browser, then everything else (the alternative ecosystem, the alternative OS, the alternative hardware, the custom chips for the hardware, etc.) not required for the actual browser is waste. That's the exact opposite of efficiency.

The issue isn't chrome's ecosystem. The issue is that Chrome is being used to create unfair barriers of entry for Chrome competitors which then allows Google to use Chrome to harm consumers because there are limited competitors for consumers to switch to.


Can people use or license Apple's version of DRM instead?


Kinda? There's other patent issue with HLS that keeps it mostly Apple only since Apple foots the costs on apple products, which can be similarly argued creates/continues an unfair barrier of entry: http://www.overdigital.com/2012/04/17/the-hidden-licensing-c...

But being required to license anything in order to implement what is a supposed to be an open standard is already a problem for a standard that's supposed to be open, even if it's not an antitrust issue.


> Can people use or license Apple's version of DRM instead?

There's no public mechanism for doing so. If Apple would do so to people it liked is not known.

You could license PlayReady from Microsoft though, and lots of people do for various implementations. There are also a few other companies that do similar modules, mostly aimed at the global pay TV market.

The terms would be fairly painful for a free browser vendor I expect, but "I priced my product at a level where I can't afford to buy in the things my users want from any of the independent vendors" isn't really an anti-trust concern.


Absurd. Apple is the #2 biggest company in the world, the fact that they are build their own parallel system is in no way proof that it isn't an unfair barrier to entry to "new and smaller players".


You're hanging that "absurd" entirely on my use of the word "smaller" and ignoring the first clause of that sentence.

The simple truth is that an antitrust case needs to show some kind of harm to consumers, not to browser vendors. Again, I cite the fact that MS straight up murdered Netscape and got away with it (though it was scary for them for a bit).


Thankfully the misguided consumer welfare model of antitrust has slowly been changing with Lina Khan's work.


Why is it not that HBO pressured Google into using DRM, and that HBO are the evil guys here?


Because Google isn't beholden to HBO.

Secondly, the issue isn't that google added DRM to chrome, it's that the DRM was pushed into an ostensibly open standard, but the implementation of that open standard is locked behind a licensing agreement with Google because it's illegal to make a compatible client under the DMCA, since that would be considered copyright circumvention.

If instead google and HBO had made a specialized browser app to handle the DRM or even just a browser extension that enabled the browser to understand a nonstandard html tag, then the argument that Google is using Chrome's footprint to to modify open standards to make it harder for people to compete with them starts to fall flat on its face (cw. no one is complaining that an HBO app for android and iOS is a monopoly that needs to be broken up). But doing it that way makes it much harder for HBO to acquire customers, because it requires customers to install a new app on their PC or an extension in their browser.


> Secondly, the issue isn't that google added DRM to chrome, it's that the DRM was pushed into an ostensibly open standard, but the implementation of that open standard is locked behind a licensing agreement with Google because it's illegal to make a compatible client under the DMCA, since that would be considered copyright circumvention.

It's not locked behind a licensing agreement with Google. It just unambiguously isn't. Google's own implementation is, but they aren't even the majority provider of EME CDM modules in the market, and there are several competitors, as well as an entirely free specification for one.

The problem for these smaller browser vendors isn't building their own EME modules, it's convincing major content streaming websites to trust their modules, which they don't. And that really isn't any different to the fact that if they were to start running their own certificate signing authority there's no reason why lots of sites would start trusting them either.


> We watch Microsoft choke Netscape to death in the 90's, and at the end of the day nothing happened.

Well, yeah, nothing happened as the IE development was grounded to a halt.


The MS settlement with the DoJ was reached in 2001, about three months after the release of IE6. If anything I think history shows the opposite occurred. Internet Explorer continued rapidly evolving during the antitrust case and its development "grounded to a halt" after the government let Microsoft off the hook.

Which makes enough sense. MS always viewed the web as an enemy and wanted people on windows apps as their primary gateways. They needed a browser until they won, then they tried to kill it. Ultimately it was Apple who succeeded at that vision, obviously.


Apple unfortunately did not succeed at that vision, and all the damn Electron apps running on my Mac are proof of that.


> Ultimately it was Apple who succeeded at that vision, obviously.

At what vision?


An OS where almost all interaction is through applications written to a proprietary API and not a common cross-platform standard.


Browsers with Widevine support, according to [1] and [2]:

- Chrome

- Firefox

- Brave (Chromium fork, built in ad blocking)

- Opera (Chromium fork)

- Roku

- Samsung Tizen smart TVs

Browsers which support a similar selection of streaming providers through different DRM solutions:

- Edge (Chromium fork)

- Safari

Just because you can't get a license for "my personal open source browser" doesn't mean there's a barrier to serious competitors here. (At least, not at present.)

[1] https://castlabs.com/resources/drm-comparison/

[2] https://support.brave.com/hc/en-us/articles/360023851591-How...


> Just because you can't get a license for "my personal open source browser" doesn't mean there's a barrier to serious competitors here. (At least, not at present.)

There is no way to know if not one of those "personal open source browsers" they blocked would have become the new chrome. The shared video playback experience of the one they sabotaged sounded neat.

It's not about adblocking, the article gets that wrong. If Chrome limits adblocking there are a bunch of alternatives that allow it. But the DRM control position they lobbied themselves into is in my eyes a barrier of entry to a relevant part of technological projects and something an antitrust case could address.

Yes, there are a few other browsers that can do the same, play DRMed videos. That makes the case harder. But why should Google have the power to control who can build browsers that support streaming sites? All while having economic interests to limit the competition? I think that's still a trust issue.

But I'm absolutely biased. I hated the DRM decision and would love it if it has dire consequences.


> But why should Google have the power to control who can build browsers that support streaming sites?

They don't.

You can build one tomorrow. I can go and get the clearkey spec and make one right now, very quickly.

But if you do why do streaming sites trust you? And that really isn't anything to do with Google.


>Facebook, Google Search and Chrome, the most discussed products in current antitrust discussions all have viable quality alternatives.

People need to stop thinking of Google and Facebook as if they offer consumer services. They don't. Their product is their ads, and their consumers are corporate marketing departments, and through this lens they are both thoroughly monopolists. Or at least "duopolists".

https://www.emarketer.com/content/global-ad-spending-update

See also: AMP, internet.org


That's a take I hadn't considered. Google's danger as a monopoly comes more from the situation in which you have to pay them to sell anything on the web. That's a much more interesting argument.


And one that the GOP will actually care about. Truth be told the GOP doesn't care about the average American locked into 1/2 ISPs available to them, but when businesses are the ones being price gouged you can bet the GOP will be the one to save the day by regulating big tech.


Don't think ads, they are identification services.


> "...one quality that truly makes something a monopoply... hamper the ability to switch to another product."

substitutability isn't often discussed because it's a minor symptom of monopolies and wholly insufficient by itself to prove monopoly power, as every monopolist will have some competition and substitutes. it's unrealistic to expect a monopolist to own 100% of a market (have no competition). it's even more unrealistic to expect no substitutes on top of no competition (a substitute is using an adjacent-market product).


That's exactly my point though. Marketshare isn't necessarily a good indicator of a problematic monopoly.

Imagine three companies dominate a given market. In most geographies, say 75%, the two larger companies company with each other and a few other stragglers. But in 25% geography a single company dominates. Who is the problem? The larger companies, competing in their broader market or the smaller company?

As an example, Amazon is dominant in the online retail sphere. The have an incredible market share. But I've never once had this create a significant problem as a consumer. Why? Because the cost to me as a consumer to use something else is tremendously low. I can use Walmart.com which has gotten quite good. Or I can go to a physical store.

Meanwhile, people must tolerate anything Comcast pulls, though they certainly have a smaller share of the personal internet service provision market than Amazon does of the eretail marlet.

To me monopoly is not dangerous because of marketshare. It's dangerous when the bulk of its customers cannot switch to another service. Particularly so if the market is difficult for new competition to enter.

I get all the open internet gripes about Google and what they've done with Chrome. And that thing could become a monster. But the reality is that you can switch today with minimal impact to an excellent alternative browser.

People buying a drug like HUMIRA are not so lucky.


>Meanwhile, people must tolerate anything Comcast pulls, though they certainly have a smaller share of the personal internet service provision market than Amazon does of the eretail marlet.

People have Satellite, Cell providers, and usually a DSL option to choose from if they don't like Comcast. Those aren't particularly good options, but realistically neither are the other browsers besides Chrome. Plus, the only other browser that people choose to use is Firefox and that's primarily funded through a deal with Google.

The problem is that Google has laid waste to many potential markets by giving products away for free to protect their ad monopoly. How can you start a competing company in Maps or Browser or mobile OS when your competitor is willing to spend billions to make their product and then give it away for free? The conundrum is is it harmful to consumers? Google gives away a bunch of high quality products for free but ultimately they all serve the Ad master.


I understand this is a highly subjective distinction but having to use Edge, Safari or Firefox in place of Chrome is not nearly the same as the decrease in experience quality as switching from cable broadband to DSL, cellular or satellite.


I’ve been trying to switch off of chrome/search/gmail/AdWords for a few years now and it’s not easy. And I stand up servers and write scripts.

Gmail doesn’t conform to email standards and eats random emails. Chrome ignores DNT and other things. Search pushes chrome, etc.

It’s a soft lock in compared to Microsoft’s 90s “bundle IE or we break you” deals with PC manufacturers, but it’s definitely not easy to move away from them. And this makes all the other anti-competitive things compoundedly bad.


> Facebook, Google Search and Chrome, the most discussed products in current antitrust discussions all have viable quality alternatives.

What is a quality alternative to Facebook? Diaspora was DOA, Mastodon is a cesspit, Twitter is nothing like Facebook, and G+ is long-dead.


> What is a quality alternative to Facebook?

Independent forums and self-hosted blogging. They are about content and real connections with like-minded people. Instead of mindlessly posting little updates throughout the day just for the sake of posting updates, people should save it for when they actually have something to say.

In general: read books not timelines.


> Independent forums and self-hosted blogging.

My social circles consists of ~6 different cliques of people with no intersection between them. I'm not going to move them all to one forum. Nobody will want to cross-post their life updates in 6 different forums.

> Instead of mindlessly posting little updates throughout the day just for the sake of posting updates, people should save it for when they actually have something to say.

Forums solve the posting part of Facebook, but don't solve the other, even more important part - the reading part.

I derive more value from reading what my friends post, then I do from posting myself. The UX for me getting this information through forums/self-hosted blogging is horrendous (And my aunt is not going to figure out how to self-host her own blog, either.)


Forums and blogging are for internet strangers; Facebook is for your real-life community. While you of course accept some risk of Facebook content becoming accidentally public, there is little to no intersection between the content I would intentionally share on Facebook vs. HN or a blog.

At minimum, blogging would need a universal federated identity system with reciprocal ACLs, which is already starting to sound a lot like Facebook.

More to the point on antitrust, the quality alternative to Facebook that most of my peers are now using is Instagram, which Facebook conveniently purchased.


For people who grew up before the Internet, the idea of needing to share everything with everyone you know isn't a necessity. Some things were better before the Internet. My real-world social life improved after I left Facebook. The quality of the information that enters my mind on a daily basis also improved. I don't read timelines or experience life by constantly thinking about whether I should post the current moment online. There are other ways to stay in touch with people.

I recommend Digital Minimalism.

http://www.calnewport.com/books/digital-minimalism/


My personal opinion is that there isn't a quality alternative. I don't think that these platforms are the least bit beneficial to the well-being of their users. It's a very unfortunate fact that I don't see them going anywhere anytime soon, the idea of online 'social networks' is firmly entrenched in modern culture and has become ubiquitous in our daily lives. I think that antitrust should be just the beginning, I feel that more needs to be done at a legislative level to set reasonable limitations on the invasiveness of the companies behind such networks. Part of this would be closing the legislative gaps that make regulations difficult to enforce against such companies.


My understanding is all kids moved to Instagram / Snapchat as soon as parents started using Facebook too, and now parents are on Instagram too so I expect kids are already using something else.


> Mastodon is a cesspit

Explain what you mean.


It's full of instances with definitely illegal, and possibly borderline-illegal content, and even worse - spam. You have to extensively, and aggressively blacklist, to avoid getting flooded in this crap. (And unless you want to wade knee-deep through that dreck, what you do, is to just copy & paste a blacklist some other poor bastard curated. I'm sure there's no vector for abuse, or censorship there...)

Mastodon also fails to solve the harassment problem. Facebook and Twitter do a piss-poor job of it, but Mastodon takes it to another level.

> The attack vector looks like this: a group of motivated harassers chooses a target somewhere in the fediverse. Every time that person posts, they immediately respond, maybe with something clever like “fuck you” or “log off.” So from the target’s point of view, every time they post something, even something innocuous like a painting or a photo of their dog, they immediately get a dozen comments saying “fuck you” or “go away” or “you’re not welcome here” or whatever. This makes it essentially impossible for them to use the social media platform.

> The second part of the attack is that, when the target posts something, harassers from across the fediverse click the “report” button and send a report to their local moderators as well as the moderator of the target’s instance. This overwhelms both the local moderators and (especially) the remote moderator. In mastodon.cloud’s case, it appears the moderator got 60 reports overnight, which was so much trouble that they decided to evict Wil Wheaton from the instance rather than deal with the deluge. [1]

The problem is that Mastodon conflates identity, and community. You will get moderated by third parties for belonging in a particular community, if that community is poorly moderated. Because the definition of poorly moderated is universal, you get a balkanized, political nightmare, where half the toots half the world sends are unreadable to the other half, even if the sender is not personally violating any rules of either community.

For a social network in 2019, this is unacceptable.

Oh, and if you're one of those people who cares about privacy, the only reason Cambridge Analytica, and its ilk aren't harvesting data from Mastodon, is because it's irrelevant. Yes, you can have private conversations with a particular group of users on it, without leaking data. Guess what? You can do that through e-mail, too. As soon as your toots are public, they can be scraped, your social graph can be re-constructed, packaged, and sold to the highest bidders.

[1] https://nolanlawson.com/2018/08/31/mastodon-and-the-challeng...

[2] https://www.theverge.com/2018/8/31/17801404/mastodon-harassm...


It sounds like you just want Facebook.


If you want to make a browser and show any content encrypted with Widevine (which is the majority of DRM content), you need a Widevine license, and they straight up refuse to issue those. How are you supposed to compete with Chrome when Google prevents you from playing Netflix and Spotify?


Spotify has native apps on all platforms (even Linux). Netflix works on Firefox (even on Linux). Not sure how Google is preventing anything...


Isn't Netflix stuck at 480p without properly working widevine?


Not sure because it downloads Widevine by default.


Now I'm not sure what your argument is. When the problem is "they refuse to issue Widevine licenses", it doesn't really matter that a browser as huge as Firefox managed to get one.

It wasn't "if you want to use Linux", it was "if you want to make a browser".

Also the Widevine authorized for Linux is only 720p on Netflix.


The point is you don't need to worry about a browser playing DRM because most platforms have native apps for the only uses a browser needs DRM for...


Okay, but I'm not sure how well I can reconcile "you don't need it in the browser at all" and "it was considered important to force it into a browser standard".


I tried switching to Edge because it has better touchscreen support, better battery life and some other niceties. But the number of websites that only test in Chrome is... not small.


Interesting how you left out the biggest issue at hand and didn't mention it once: Android

> Without Google Services and the Google Play Store, it’s a brick. They’ve mastered separation of the strategic openness of Android with the accompanying strategic closed-ness of everything that runs on it and makes it actually worth something.


Agreed. Android and iOS for that matter are definitely deep into problematic duopoly territory.


I think it is prudent if we are constantly vigilant and detect monopolistic behaviors ASAP. Why wait till the entity truly becomes a monopoly and has enough power to topple governments?


Agreed. I wish there was better antitrust controls across the economy. Unfortunately the way the U.S. government enforces antitrust measures is incredibly pick and choosey. Therefore there's an opportunity cost to focusing on certain companies.


one of the markers of monopoly is that you can use your dominance in one industry to move into other industries and achieve dominance there. Sound like anyone you know?


That has ceased to be a serious consideration for American antitrust enforcement for decades. That almost literally describes every company in the S&P 500.


>without Google Services and the Google Play Store, it’s a brick. They’ve mastered separation of the strategic openness of Android with the accompanying strategic closed-ness of everything that runs on it and makes it actually worth something.

It's scary how true this is. Especially how it's only obvious in hindsight (to me at least). Yet clearly this was orchestrated.

In both Chrome & Androids case it's the non-free tie-in that's the catch. Either play store or DRM/codecs. hmm...who owns the biggest video site..ah right.


Amazon's anti-trust paradox by Lina Khan hit the nail on the head a few years ago. When anti-trust moved towards the chicago school logic of judging merely based on price rather than taking market structure and power into account, we really screwed ourselves over.

We've really only got ourselves to blame for elevating consumer satisfaction above all else and losing sight of the long term.


Yes, the original definition of monopoly that created the Sherman act was all about control of the supply chain. In the late 1800s, the railroads pretty much controlled everything from the coal mine to the hotels at every station. Completed control of the supply chain, this is what Google, Facebook and Amazon are doing right now on the internet. A monopoly isn't about consumer it's about market control. We need to move off the "harm to the consumer" metric as it is in this case too slow to identify the problem.


Errmm, why people say that monopolies don't harm the consumer? They always did, every time. How adblocking restriction in Chrome doesn't harm the consumer? And it's only the most recent example, history is littered with them.


Especially when said monopolies actively manipulate consumer's perceptions of what a fair price is to begin with.

Witness the premium Intel put on 4+ core CPUs for ages, then suddenly when AMD picked up pace, they could deliver them at half or a third of the price...


Who is "we" in this scenario? Changes to antitrust legislation was largely foisted upon the public by financial oligarchs that used the new rules to cement their own wealth and power, and unfortunately for my great-grandchildren, I am not one of them.


No it was the "Antitrust Paradox" by Bork who made a very compelling argument that at the time trust busting was too aggressive and we should focus not on the effect of monopolies on competitors but on consumers.

In the recent decide it might have swung too far in the other direction.


Bork made the argument. But as with all ideologies, that was then embraced and, with the aid of monopoly-money billions (the real kind), reamplified throughout the "public" (monopoly-fed) discourse and corridors of policy definition (legislatures, regulators, academe). Jane Mayer's Dark Money tells much of that story.

Some who find themselves so embraced shun the contact. Bork reveled in it.


I've been complaining about Google Play Services ever since they started pushing it over Android's native APIs. It was one of the big early shots fired in the war to redefine "privacy" from "nobody collects data about you" to "Your Friend $Datacorp doesn't let anyone else get the data they collect about you."


I think the Google Play Services ploy was pretty obvious very early on - it started about when they stopped updating the AOSP apps (alarm, keyboard, etc.) and moved the GPS/IMU sensor fusion stuff into Play Services.


I don't faintly see the logic in this!

The proof is in the pudding on Chrome's tangible open source impact:

1. V8 is used in a multitude of projects, node being the most impact-ful. And node has changed desktop (with electron and CLI apps), server and developer workflow

2. Brave, Edge, Opera are just some of the WideVine licensed Chromium based browsers

On the contrary, iOS has banned almost every tenet of common sense general purpose computing:

1. Safari for iOS is purposefully crippled to drive devs and users to it's app store

2. App store has fluid, whimsical, retroactively applied approval laws, ahem whims.

3. It's a general purpose computer that you can own the hardware of, but need the manufacturer's consent to run software on. You know, like needing your fridge maker's approval for the groceries you stock in it.

4. They purposefully stymie competition:

- Spotify, Google-Maps, etc. are denied APIs that give competing Apple offerings an edge.

- 30% tax on external apps again gives Apple's competing offerings unfair edge

- Complete ban on Just-In-Time compiled code and alternate browser engines is intentional - to stymie features and quality to a default of "below Apple's competing offerings"

How one rationalizes Chrome to be more "anti-trust-y" is contrary to logic


> Brave, Edge, Opera are just some of the WideVine licensed Chromium based browsers

Today I learned: the new Edge has both WideVine and PlayReady. I figured they'd just go with PlayReady and be done with it - does WideVine have any real advantages?

https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/microsoft/chromium-mic...

https://www.ghacks.net/2019/04/03/chromium-based-microsoft-e...


Microsoft PlayReady DRM still the only way to play Netflix in 4K on a PC, correct?

I guess there's no reason not to include Widevine as well, but it's funny how this means the new Microsoft Edge supports features no other Chromium-based browser is allowed to use, including Google Chrome.

Getting rid of DRM in general is fine with me, but I don't understand why the focus on Widevine in particular given that its availability is relatively less restricted.


> Microsoft PlayReady DRM still the only way to play Netflix in 4K on a PC, correct?

I believe so, yes. (The Win10 app is powered by PlayReady.)

Mandatory link to the netflix-1080p hack, enabling 1080p Netflix playback on Chrome [0]. I don't think it does 4k though, and I believe it causes awful CPU loads.

[0] https://github.com/truedread/netflix-1080p/blob/master/READM...


some content distributors only support widevine


> How one rationalizes Chrome to be more "anti-trust-y" is contrary to logic.

IMO it was not Chrome that was the problem as much as:

... the way Google has rammed it down the troat of the Internet

... the way Google keep sabotaging other browsers from the server side (yep, ask the Edge team about YouTube or Firefox users about GSuite)

... the way a number of developers has picked up these bad habits and forget (or "forget") to check their sites in all browsers

... and of course the bait and switch they are playing now.


I remember when Chrome launched. And the cheers that followed. Finally, someone was doing something about the complete mess that browsers were in.

So "ramming it down the throat of the internet"... not so much. It was eagerly adopted by everyone because the only alternatives at the time were IE (with it's curious off-standard interpretation of... well...everything) and Firefox (which at the time was unusably slow and difficult).

It's a huge shame that we've got to this point with it, because it has been the driving force behind the massive improvement in browsers over the last dozen years. It's like watching an old friend being forced to humiliate themselves to keep a job :(


> I remember when Chrome launched. And the cheers that followed. Finally, someone was doing something about the complete mess that browsers were in.

I never preferred Chrome myself but I welcomed it.

> So "ramming it down the throat of the internet"... not so much.

That was later when they started to add it to Java JRE downloads and what not.

> and Firefox (which at the time was unusably slow and difficult).

I'm kind of impatient with computers but the difference between Firefox and Chrome was always to small for me to care about compared to what I had to let go to move away from Firefox.

> It's a huge shame that we've got to this point with it, because it has been the driving force behind the massive improvement in browsers over the last dozen years.

According to many of us it has also been a driving force behind making the web less cross browser friendly.

> It's like watching an old friend being forced to humiliate themselves to keep a job :(

More like my friend who became boss and started taking advantage of it until finally a number of old friends are speaking out agains him.


Its seems people are more willing to give up freedom for privacy.


No need for whataboutism here, as no one is here to argue that Google’s competitors don’t engage in anti-competitive behavior. This is about how Google uses its open source products to shape web standards to their sole benefit, while using its “openness” to pretend otherwise. The author explicitly singles out Chrome, because it has a huge influence on the entire web despite the little attention it receives from consumers.

> The proof is in the pudding on Chrome's tangible open source impact

Yes, the more influence Chrome has, the better it is for Google.


"But what’s completely correct here is that Chrome is, quite explicitly, blocking users’ freedom to use their web browser the way they would expect with a piece of open source software; "

No, what you expect from Open Source software is to be able to fork it, modify it, recompile it, and use the modifications.

Open Source isn't about end-user features, it's about development freedom. A completely open source piece of software could have a set of APIs and UX that keeps you on the rails and doesn't let the end user do what they want. What Open Source shouldn't do, is prevent you from modifying it to edit the app to do what you want after a recompile, and ship and share your modifications with others, that's the freedom open source provides.

Arguably the DRM binary blob angle results in Tivoization, but the idea that this is some elaborate plot for Chrome lock-in by Google is ludicrous. Patent-encumbered compression codecs also created similar headaches and Google went out of their way to try break the MPEG-LA consortium monopoly. The DRM issue is basically forced on the industry by the content publishing industry. If you want to stop this particular issue from making open source browsers hard to develop, you need to talk Netflix, Hulu, Disney, and all of the other players.

Or you just accept that you can't watch most Hollywood produced content in a web browser and leave it up to native apps. Or, we could just mandate everyone have to continue to support Adobe Flash players.

DRM isn't going to magically go away if Chrome were a separate company.

What no one has articulated in any of these conversations is any actual harm that's been done to them. There's a lot of catastrophizing about theoretical harms, but the Web and Mobile industries are far more vibrant than they were in the 90s, and launching some device that includes a browser, mobile OS, or embedded kernel is a fraction of the cost and effort it was in the 90s to do something similar.

Things have gotten easier across the board. Someone launching a new IoT device these days forks chromium, webkit, or android for the UI. This would have cost you huge licensing fees a decade ago and a large engineering team.

How many successful startups are running off node (v8) now? Or Electron (e.g. Discord, Slack, etc)?


> No, what you expect from Open Source software is to be able to fork it, modify it, recompile it, and use the modifications.

Thats wrong. What you expect from open source software is to be able to see the source. This source may be available without the right to modify or redistribute it in any way whatsoever. You're looking for free software as preferred by the fsf, not open source.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-source_software

> Open-source software (OSS) is a type of computer software in which source code is released under a license in which the copyright holder grants users the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose.

The difference between open source and free software is only ideological - you are probably thinking of shared source or source available.


Honestly it would be pretty incredible for Chrome to be split out of Google, and I for one would love to see that happen.


Becoming a separate for-profit company (as opposed to a nonprofit like Mozilla) could result in some really bad things. Chrome-the-company would have to find new sources of revenue; in the process, it would likely increase its tracking, and it might end up selling info to companies other than Google, which at least tends to hoard user data internally. It may also develop even more industry partnerships around things like DRM that aren't in the interest of users.

If Chrome could somehow be forcefully split off into a decently funded nonprofit, I'd be all for it. I'm not sure that anyone but Google could make that happen, though.


In what possible way would Chrome make money as a standalone company without utterly alienating its userbase?

Chrome is subsidized by the rest of Google.


By doing like firefox, making money out of making google the default search engine. Which means their unique source of revenue (and client) would be google. Full circle...


> By doing like firefox, making money out of making google the default search engine. Which means their unique source of revenue (and client) would be google. Full circle...

However, a Chrome-with-Google-revenue would be far more independent of Google than Chrome-the-Google-Subsidiary. Mozilla/Firefox has shown that it's still possible to advance privacy even within such an arrangement.

Also, its far from clear who would have the most power in such an arrangement. Without a popular browser of its own, Google will be forced to pay the browser vendors to stay the default, unless it wants to give a search engine competitor a chance to unseat it.


It only seems like Mozilla is independent because they are the most independent - a truly independent browser would probably do something shocking, like bundling adblock.


Independence comes in degrees, and I'm not convinced a "truly independent" browser would by truly better for consumers. It'd need a revenue model, and its not clear to me what that would be besides bundling with a paid product or displaying banner and text ads.

Essentially Mozilla is selling ads, but only to one advertiser (Google) which is easy to disable.


Wait, hold on.

Why does a browser need a revenue model? Why can't a browser just be a piece of software that's "finished", with the occasional security patch?

Chrome is incredibly overcomplex because it attempts to be more than just a browser, and it is part of Google's strategy.

A regular browser doesn't have to be an OS in itself.


> Why does a browser need a revenue model?

Because development isn't free.

> Why can't a browser just be a piece of software that's "finished", with the occasional security patch?

Developing security patches for the dwindling user base such a browser would have isn't free, either.

But even if such a browser existed, the browsers people would actually be using would be the ones evolving with the things people want from the web.


Unfortunately keeping modern software secure is a full-time job. Internet browsers are just one giant attack surface. This is especially complicated by the speed at which the implementation of new features is required to keep a general audience interested. Unfortunately, a user like my mother wouldn't care how ideologically well-meaning a browser was if she couldn't use it for watching online media. I recently went looking for a lightweight browser for an older linux box, and it was hard to find anything that didn't either bundle Chromium or just forego having Javascript at all. Keeping up with modern web standards is pretty much an impossible job for a team of hobby developers on the basis of features alone ( WebGL, WebAssembly, DRM etc ), let alone security.


> This is especially complicated by the speed at which the implementation of new features is required to keep a general audience interested.

That may have been true 10 years ago, but now the feature set is so rich, that any new ones are really solutions in search of a problem rather than an actual user need. The average customer is pretty much using what Google dictates to get to the internet (used to be MS)

Nothing would change if the current feature set were kept constant

(except lots of HN's would be out of a job and Google might struggle to find new ways to show their ads)


> any new ones are really solutions in search of a problem rather than an actual user need

Not at all. App platforms aren't standing still, and one of the goals of web browsers is to make them as capable as app platforms while retaining the safety of the web sandbox.

That includes things like VR/AR, WebAssembly and extensions to it, Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), adjusting pages to match the system theming, better video formats, better authentication (Web Authentication), and a hundred other things people actually want.


I'm very sympathetic to your overall sentiment regarding utility of many of the new features. My point remains however, that even addressing the current feature set is monumental enough of a task. The Javascript standard has become complex enough to implement and maintain from a functionality point of view, let alone keeping it secure.


Linux doesn't have a revenue model... Although, doesn't Linus work for Google? There's also Blender. I'm sure we could think of a long list of others.


A good chunk of linux and related development is done by programmers being paid by some for-profit company in whose interest is it either to have those chunks developed or who want to keep their employees happy by letting them do open source contributions. Without this invisible injection of funds, linux development would slow down significantly and it might not remain competitive.

Browsers are a lot less modular than operating systems and they operate in a different market (eg. contributing to their development doesn't help the bottom line of any company particularly), so Firefox doesn't get a lot of paid for third-party developer time. Hence, Mozilla makes unfortunate compromises.


Torvalds is employed by the Linux Foundation.


> a truly independent browser would probably do something shocking, like bundling adblock.

Opera does this: https://www.opera.com/computer/features/ad-blocker


That's what Brave did...


Google (or another search engine) would pay Chrome to be included as the default search engine, the same way that Firefox exists now.


Would this not defeat the purpose of splitting them up? Are they then not equally likely to behave in a way that favors Google?


> Would this not defeat the purpose of splitting them up? Are they then not equally likely to behave in a way that favors Google?

Would you characterize Mozilla as behaving in ways that favor Google?


Only in the same way that Gmail and Android are "subsidized" by Google. They're sources of data and play directly into how they generate revenue.

I agree that without those motivations it would be hard to fund these projects without them going paid or taking donations, but I take issue with calling them "subsidized".


Charge money to any OEM that wants to ship with Chrome: i.e. every single non-Apple manufacturer of phones, tablets or computers.


I'd think it's a bit more difficult. You have ChromeOS (which is based on Chromium OS)[0].

And ChromeOS is used in places that aren't just Chromebooks. For example, Google's Wifi points are based on ChromeOS[1].

[0] https://www.chromium.org/chromium-os/chromium-os-faq

[1] https://www.chromium.org/chromium-os/developer-information-f...


I had the same impression as the author. Google was tiptoeing up to the line of antitrust scrutiny with its search dominance (95%), the Google Play Store tax, and Youtube demonetizations, but when I saw it was banning ad blockers on Chrome, I said, that's it. This is such an obvious exploitation of market dominance that it really can't be ignored. You could explain the business logic to a ten year old. It's not an accident that Microsoft's antitrust problems started with browsers too. One of the funny things though is that ad blockers are becoming increasingly useless. Nearly every site now makes you deactivate the blocker so it's now more trouble than it's worth.


This is an interesting, and relatively fair, article. There are two big issues with it's reasoning though.

First, chrome isn't yet close to IEs peak dominance. Ie peaked at over 90% market share.

Second, DRM isn't necessary for watching video, it's needed for watching certain liscenced video. In practice, this means Netflix and streamed televison. You can still watch YouTube just fine, minus YouTube red originals, without widevine. Is a browser that keeps you off Netflix so bad for google?


> First, chrome isn't yet close to IEs peak dominance. Ie peaked at over 90% market share.

Waiting until it hits that to do something about it would be pretty ridiculous. Based on some random stats website, Chrome is currently at 70% share, and Chromium-based browsers are at 77%


further, you can dominate and control a market with a minority share of that market (depending on market characteristics). google's many anti-consumer actions with chrome show that 70%+ market share is more than enough already.


It's pretty much all the paid media on the internet. Spotify, Hulu, netflix, cable providers, amazon, etc.

I guess if you literally only watch free YouTube videos it's not a problem? Totally not an anti-trust issue...


Is Spotify, or Hulu, or Netflix, or any of the others you mentioned owned by Google? No.

So... why would it cause any antitrust violation?

Widevine was not the first DRM for videos, it was already common practice for the big paid video websites to require DRM before it was created.


Imagine we're 20 years into the future and Ford has just successfully managed to lobby (with quite some industry support, mind you) for mandatory Vehicle-to-Vehicle/Infrastructure comms, where every car has to be able to talk to every set of traffic lights, speed sign, and other vehicle.

Now imagine that the V2X standard which just got enshrined in law states that every vehicle has to be compatible with every other vehicle etc. And Ford sat down with GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, and offered them a proprietary component which just so happens to do all this V2X stuff without any hassle. And they all agree to use it.

It only be legally built by Ford, but they're the V2X experts so that's OK, right, I mean they're doing a public service, right? Ford is pretty happy selling this component to GM, Toyota, Honda, etc. for a very reasonable fee, so how can there be an issue?

Now imagine some new car company wants to build cars which compete with Ford's cars, and Ford says 'nope, you can't buy our V2X component.' And booyah, Ford now controls who can and can't enter the market.

Hmm.


> Imagine we're 20 years into the future and Ford has just successfully managed to lobby (with quite some industry support, mind you) for mandatory Vehicle-to-Vehicle/Infrastructure comms, where every car has to be able to talk to every set of traffic lights, speed sign, and other vehicle.

Right, but this is where the analogy breaks down. Its more like "some municipalities decided that cars on their streets had to be specially registered or they wouldn't let you drive. Some people like those municipalities, but they aren't the majority, and you aren't, at all, forced to go near them.


OK, then how about instead of it being a national legal requirement, 90% of roads were privately owned toll roads and Ford convinced a consortium of toll road owners to standardize on their V2X component. So you can build a car without it but that car can't drive to anywhere you want to go.


But again, that still doesn't work, because it's not 90% of toll roads. Like, keep in mind, in this analogy, Ford owns a bunch of roads, and they're all free to travel on. And of course there's also Honda (Microsoft: PlayRead) and BMW (Apple: FairPlay) with their own exclusive components that serve the same purpose, and some municipalities choose to use those instead, or to allow vehicles that use any. Or, most of the municipalities (in concrete terms, the vast majority), don't pass any laws at all.

For your analogy to make sense, the following would need to be true:

1. Apple and Microsoft didn't have competing (and fairly widely used) alternate DRM solutions

2. The average website required DRM to access it.

Without those, this is nothing more than dystopian fanfiction.


I guess the questions are whether:

1. copyright owners forced Google to implement DRM

2. Or, Google welcomed DRM (with the intention of lock-in)

3. Or, Google should have kept Chrome DRM free and fought the copyright owners...


I don’t think those questions matter at all. Regardless of how the current situation arose, it enables strong lock-in to Chrome vs. Chromium.


Amp. Amp is what really scares me about the future of web browsing in chrome.


Pardon my ignorance, but could you elaborate?

What is Amp, and why is it so scary?


Here's an amp page (although it will redirect to regular reddit if you're not on a mobile device):

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimf...

Basically it's a way for google to promote web pages that are better formatted for mobile devices that use a limited subset of html and restrict use of javascript. The pages are hosted on google.com as additional assurance that they will load quickly.

I do believe it's scary to some because it seems like it's giving google a lot of power and control over content on the web.


More direct AMP link: https://amp.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/5d4x2h/e...

The original page is hosted on the original domain. What other hosts provide are AMP caches to display them faster. For example, Microsoft Bing:

- https://blogs.bing.com/search/September-2016/bing-app-joins-...

- https://blogs.bing.com/Webmaster-Blog/September-2018/Introdu...

- https://www.bing-amp.com/c/s/amp.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimf...


JavaScript disabled? Please stare at our Google-sponsored white screen for eight seconds.


AMP is like the bogeyman here on HN, when it is really just another web framework.

>The pages are hosted on google.com

Anyone can roll their own AMP pages and host it on their domains. For example: https://amp.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/6yj6iw/what_did_...

This includes getting your own amp lightning icon in search results when you host with certified CDNs.


AMP's HTML validator has a hard dependency on cdn.ampproject.org [0]. So the hosting requirements aren't fully isolated, and entirely under your control.

Also, I could not find a list of certified CDNs.

[0]: https://github.com/ampproject/amphtml/blob/master/validator/...


https://github.com/ampproject/amphtml/blob/master/caches.jso...

Google, Bing, Cloudflare are the three official caches, which is what I think they mean.


Not true, you can validate AMP from localhost. The AMP.js packages comes bundled with it's own validator:

https://amp.dev/documentation/guides-and-tutorials/learn/val...

Even then it's quite a stretch to go from saying Google controls AMP to saying the validator has an online requirement. Also, as the other commenter said, Google, Bing, and Cloudflare are currently the certified CDNs to get the icon in search results.



This whole antitrust debate around Google feels weird to me. People act like Google is not a for-profit company, but some sort of philanthropic association that is law-bound to provide good technology to the people.

Google has only one goal, which is selling advertisements. To do so, it provides, FOR FREE, the best technology services of the planet, including what is basically the entrance door to the internet and a piece of software to make the experience of browsing pleasant. Nobody forces Google to do so. They could easily make people pay for the services, and nobody could say a thing. And yet they give this all for free, even allowing you to block the only stream of revenue that they get from you (ads).

The antitrust controversy around Google is just a major case of wanting to have the cake and eating it too. It's like we've had somebody giving us free food for decades, and now we're suropriesd that the terms of a deal that is extremely advantageous for us are changing. We've become accustomed to the idea of fre Google, and we've forgot that Google could make us pay a fee for their services, and we would all shut up and pay.


> They could easily make people pay for the services, and nobody could say a thing.

I don't think people would pay for much of Google's products. Google is candy served so that the target is complacent while it is being invisibly surveiled.


I've never once gotten the impression that people think Google should behave like a non-profit.


"Google is not a for-profit company, but some sort of philanthropic association [providing] good technology" is an image Google created for itself and pushed hard. The good ol' "don't do evil" was part of it.


Wikipedia provides information FOR FREE yet isn't the subject of an antitrust probe.


People here seem to assume all monopolies are illegal. THAT'S NOT TRUE!

Source: https://www.classlawgroup.com/antitrust/unlawful-practices/m...

A monopoly is when a company has exclusive control over a good or service in a particular market. Not all monopolies are illegal. For example, businesses might legally corner their market if they produce a superior product or are well managed. Antitrust law doesn’t penalize successful companies just for being successful. Competitors may be at a legitimate disadvantage if their product or service is inferior to the monopolist’s.

But monopolies are illegal if they are established or maintained through improper conduct, such as exclusionary or predatory acts. This is known as anticompetitive monopolization


There are plenty of opinions on what is or isn't a monopoly. What matters is that the opinion that what the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, and others are doing amounts to being something that needs action from governments is both popular and becoming a talking point for a lot of politicians in both the EU and the US.

So, what matters less is whether they are right or wrong and what matters more is what the before mentioned companies are doing about mitigating the risks of being confronted with excessive fines, rulings, and other forms of damage. The answer is, so far not a lot and that may become a problem as it seems pretty clear there is wide spread support for action against them.

I'd say both Google and Apple are pretty far down the road where they will have multi billion euro or dollar fines at some point. They are both highly profitable as well so that in it self would not necessarily be that much of a problem. What would be a problem is governments interfering with their business models.

IMHO, some action here would be good. These companies are getting a bit complacent about their position in the market and quite arrogant about casually snuffing out competition when it suits them. In general, it's time for a shake up in the mobile space. Google and Apple earned their position with the work they did last decade but nothing is forever and I remember a time when there were more credible options then just them.


Couple of simple but perhaps naive questions:

Can Microsoft pay Google to have it recommend Edge on the Google search homepage?

Should Chrome, rather than have Google.com as the default homepage, offer a list of Search engines for the user to choose from?

Should Chrome be the default browser on Android or should the user choose from a list?


Can Android OEMs who ship Google Play Store ship with a browser that isn't Chrome as the default browser?


Sorry, but this is a very weak article.

First, not having competition does not make one a monopoly. It's anti-competitive (unfair) practices that make one a monopoly.

IE, now that had the form of a monopoly, in its day.

Then, he goes on to ignore WHATWG, which is the real authority, and is comprised of Apple, Mozilla, Google, Microsoft. I don't follow closely enough, but I'd be surprised to learn that Google has outsized power.

Lastly, to the extent that widevine is important, it isn't restricted to Chrome.


You're literally redefining monopoly in a way that's different than every economist and most of society.


Not having competition is exactly what a monopoly is. That's why copyright is a state granted monopoly.


It would be weird for a mustache-twirling villain to give most of their source code to their competitors, hence allowing them to start out compatible with nearly every website on the Internet.

(With a bit of DRM needed for video, so those competitors can't be pure open source. But still, it's not going to stop Microsoft.)

The article admits to this, then kind of ignores it.


It would not be weird at all for a mustache-twirling villain to pretend not to be a villain, right? Perhaps to loudly tout one's open-source credentials while moving more and more core android functionality into proprietary licensed code, or even just to have a plausible defense in the event of anti-trust activity.


> It would be weird for a mustache-twirling villain to give most of their source code to their competitors, hence allowing them to start out compatible with nearly every website on the Internet.

No it wouldn't, if the mustache-twirling villain's indent was control. Those competitors are following most if not all of Chrome's implementation decisions, and economically they're highly incentivized follow whatever Google does.


Google didn't follow all of Safari's decisions, and eventually they forked WebKit. Why shouldn't Microsoft do something similar when they have different goals?

They'd likely remain mostly compatible because all browser vendors do try to follow web standards nowadays. But maybe not more than Safari and Chrome are compatible. And it helps maintain Microsoft's veto on web standards (like Firefox has vetoed previous Chrome proposals).


> Why shouldn't Microsoft do something similar when they have different goals?

They explicitly said they wouldn't fork Chromium.


Sure, for now, and maybe for years. Chrome upstreamed patches to WebKit for a while.

But the point is, they can fork, so that means Chrome doesn't have full control.


Microsoft couldn't maintain a Trident-based browser compatible with the Google-controlled web. They won't be able to maintain one based on Blink either.


> Google didn't follow all of Safari's decisions, and eventually they forked WebKit. Why shouldn't Microsoft do something similar when they have different goals?

Didn't Microsoft recently throw in the towel with Edge, and switch to Chromium, because they thought it was too much trouble to maintain their own engine?


Yes, it's a smart move that frees up the engineering effort that was previously devoted to catching up to Chrome, rather than improving on it. How they redeploy them isn't something we can tell from the outside.

There are occasional debates on Hacker News about when you should rewrite your codebase. Similar arguments apply here: when should you rewrite someone else's codebase?


Villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well-camouflaged.

-- Jean-Luc Picard, Captain, USS Enterprise


E) All of the above.


All the other browsers have been complaining more and more recently about patches and improvements they can't make because they can't get permission or explanation from Chromium's overseers.


Let's not forget that Google has great influence over webRTC [1]. The source code is kept in their repositories [2].

[1]https://webrtc.org/

[2]https://webrtc.googlesource.com/




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