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September 8th, 2014

Google, Browsers & DRM

A recent brouhaha concerning Google comes from an item that made the rounds in the last week or so regarding older browsers and Google search. It seems that some users of older browsers have been receiving an outdated version of Google’s homepage when attempting to make a search. Evidently, Google searches made using these browsers returned results just fine, using Google’s current results page, but users needed to return to the search engine’s homepage to conduct another search. The browsers affected are primarily older versions of Opera and Safari.

This led to a discussion on the Google Product Forums, which prompted a reply from a Google employee using the name nealem:

“I want to assure you this isn’t a bug, it’s working as intended.

“We’re continually making improvements to Search, so we can only provide limited support for some outdated browsers. We encourage everyone to make the free upgrade to modern browsers — they’re more secure and provide a better web experience overall.”

It’s doubtful that Google is worried much, if at all, about user security with this move. Most likely, what Google is worried about — the “better Web experience” as they put it — is advertising. In other words, they want to make sure your browser is capable of displaying all of the newer ways to display ads. Specifically, they want to harness HTML5 for that purpose.

Browser scores

click to enlarge

To test this theory, I went to HTML5test, a web site that scores how well browsers support HTML5 standards and specifications. Since The Register reports that two of the browsers affected are Opera 12.X and Safari 5.1.x, I compared those browsers’ HTML capabilities against the browser I had open at the time, Chrome 36.0.1985.125. In addition, I compared the results with Opera 22 and Safari 8.0, the latest versions of these browsers with stats available on the test site.

The results pretty much confirmed my suspicions — at least to my satisfaction.

According to HTML5test, my version of Chrome, released just this summer, has a score of 507 out of a possible 555. The most recent versions of Opera and Safari available for testing produce scores of 498 and 429 respectively – not as good as Chrome, but still respectable. It’s not surprising that Opera 12 and Safari 5.1 (both released in 2011) don’t fare so well, coming up with scores of 357 and 305.

browser video support

click to enlarge

The older browsers are notably lacking in HTML5 support for graphics and videos, both of which figure into Google’s advertising business. Under the category of “2D Graphics,” my recent version of Chrome produces a score of 23, with recent versions of Opera and Safari each producing a score of 21. How do the older browsers do? Both get a score of 12. For “3D Graphics,” all of the newer browsers have a score of 20, with the older browsers showing zeros.

Older browsers did little better under the “Video” heading, an important area for Google, both for their advertising and YouTube businesses. In this category, all of the more modern browsers produce a score of 35, with both older browsers returning a 25. Most telling might be the fact that all three modern browsers can deal with HTML5’s built-in support for DRM, which both older browsers cannot. It’s a certainty that Google’s plans for YouTube include use of HTML5’s DRM capabilities.

It’s Google’s site to do with as they will, of course, and it’s true that keeping a browser current is good for security reasons. I also can’t fault them for not being upfront and saying, “We want you to upgrade your browser to help us serve ads to your computer.” I wouldn’t either, if I were them.

What do you think?

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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5 comments to Google, Browsers & DRM

  • […] It’s doubtful that Google is worried much, if at all, about user security with this move. Most likely, what Google is worried about — the “better Web experience” as they put it — is advertising. In other words, …read more […]

  • lozz

    Never use Google for anything!

  • tracyanne

    In response I suggest NoScript, Adblock, Ghostery, Self destructing Cookies, IXQuick, oh and not Chrome.

  • Mike

    Ghostery is not FOSS so I would not recommend it.

    Don’t forget Privacy Badger and Disconnect.

  • Christine,

    I’m one of those people who likes Google’s old search engine page layout (SEPL).

    In fact, I’ve been using a lightweight browser called dwb which I noticed was returning the old page layout.

    To make a long story short, it turns out that, not surprisingly, Google triggers the old SEPL based on the user-agent string sent by your browser.

    Here’s my dwb user agent string:
    Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X) AppleWebKit/538.1 (KHTML, like Gecko) Safari/538.1 dwb/commit 2014-07-02 6224470

    If you want to trigger google sending results in the old SEPL, then install into your Chrome browser a user-agent manager extension and paste the above into it. Note that for whatever reason the author of dwb chose this string which delineates AppleWebKit, Macintosh, Safari keywords, one or all triggering the layout change.

    I’ve tested this on Chromium and it works.

    Peace. Out.