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posted by martyb on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:05PM   Printer-friendly
from the all-your-user-agent-are-belong-to-us dept.

Chrome Phasing out Support for User Agent

Google announced its decision to drop support for the User-Agent string in its Chrome browser. Instead, Chrome will offer a new API called Client Hints that will give the user greater control over which information is shared with websites.

[...] When Netscape came out,[...] it adopted the User-Agent string and added additional details such as the operating system, language, etc. These details helped websites to deliver the right content for the user, though in reality, the primary use case for the User-Agent string became browser sniffing.

[...] Browser sniffing continued to play a significant part in determining the browser capabilities for many years, which led to an unfortunate side effect where smaller browser vendors had to mimic popular User-Agents to display the correct website - as many companies only supported the major User-Agent types.

With JavaScript popularity rising, most developers have started using libraries such as Modernizer, which detects the specific capabilities of the browser, as this provides much more accurate results.

As a result, the most significant usage for the User-Agent remained within the advertising industry, where companies used it to 'fingerprint' users, a practice that many privacy advocates found to be problematic - mainly as most users had limited options to disable/mask those details.

If advertisers (other than Google) are unable to fingerprint our browsers we might be condemned to having fewer ads on our web pages to watch.

[A more in-depth article is available on ZDNet; the entire Client Hints proposal is available on GitHub. This is subject to modification — but it has been under development since at least January of 2019 — so don't wait for it to get formally adopted if you have any issues with it; get your feedback in soon.-Ed.]


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  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by bradley13 on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:37PM (4 children)

    by bradley13 (3053) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:37PM (#975560) Homepage Journal

    Note that, according to the HTTP specification, the User-Agent string is optional. However...

    There are a lot of web developers out there who are apparently incapable of correctly implementing a specification. If you fail to send a User-Agent string, many websites break. They apparently have some sort of if statement logic: if browser-x send X else if browser-y. Only they forgot the final "else" where they ought to send content even if the don't know the browser type.

    Anyway, relying on User-Agent just indicates that a website is relying on non-standard browser behaviors. Another sign of quality web development. If you site doesn't work on *any* modern browser, your site is broken. Period.

    I would like to believe that this change to Chrome will force web developers to clean up this mess. Unfortunately, it won't. According to TFA, Chrome will still send User-Agent and offer "Client Hints". In total, this will almost certainly provide even more information to track users.

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  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:59PM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:59PM (#975570)

    My frankenbrowser sends null as a user agent. I get a bunch of null pointer errors from websites.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @07:55PM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @07:55PM (#975588)

      My browser occasionally identifies itself as a copy of mozilla running on a DEC system running TOPS-20..sorry, I meant mozzarella running on a DEC..

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 26 2020, @04:46AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 26 2020, @04:46AM (#975736)

        A transexual browser, eh?

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @07:43PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @07:43PM (#975582)

    "this will almost certainly provide even more information to track users."
    looking through the document this is exactly what it does. So I guess the default will be all on in a browser like chrome and only power users will go and switch it off. Something like tor-browser will default all off.