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Tech Life

Interview with Leah Elliott, ‘Contra Chrome’ Comic Artist

A talk with the author of "Contra Chrome," Leah Elliott, a digital-rights activist. Her comic takes aim at Google’s privacy policies.
Apr 26th, 2022 9:56am by
Featued image for: Interview with Leah Elliott, ‘Contra Chrome’ Comic Artist
Featured image by Leah Elliott.

In the latest This Week in Development, I wrote about a new web comic called “Contra Chrome,” a Creative Commons remix of a comic Google published when it launched the Chrome web browser in 2008. The author of “Contra Chrome,” Leah Elliott, describes herself as a “digital-rights activist” and in her comic she takes aim at Google’s privacy policies since 2008 — especially in relation to the inner workings of the Chrome browser.

I contacted Elliott to ask her some questions about her motivation for creating this remix, why she feels so strongly about Google’s privacy policies, and whether she had any professional reasons to publish the remix. Her replies follow.

The New Stack: You clearly spent a lot of time creating “Contra Chrome.” What was your motivation to do this project?

Leah Elliott

Leah Elliott

Leah Elliott: I think the Summer of Snowden was a turning point for me. It was then I realized that mass surveillance is real and live and online, that it threatens the existence of free, democratic societies, and that at this point, doing nothing about it was just as political an act as resistance.

So I tried to educate myself, teched up, and was in for a shock. I think most non-techie people have no idea what a Wild West the internet is. They would be appalled to learn about the scale of the data that is extracted from them, and horrified by the political ramifications. But as matters stand, it’s not easy to learn about that at all. The information is scattered all over the net, hidden in tech bubbles or long scientific texts, sugarcoated with misleading PR.

A comic, I thought, could be an entry point for people, because it has the power to organize very complex systems into clear and entertaining visuals.

So I reached out to the hacker community, talked to privacy experts, and the concept for Contra Chrome started taking shape.

Can you tell us a bit about your background — what kind of work do you do, and have you had anything to do with Google professionally before?

I’m a comic artist, with a background in arts and communications. I have never worked for Google, and I will never draw a Google Doodle in my life.

Do you have any dev work experience, or is it more like self-taught knowledge when it comes to tech matters? You sound like a very curious person who likes to look under the hood, but maybe you could clarify a bit.

It’s self-taught, never been a dev. All I can bring to the table is the end-user perspective.

Contra Chrome 1

Contra Chrome comic, page 2

Obviously you take a dim view of Google’s stance on privacy in Chrome, but what do you think of its web capabilities innovations — e.g. PWAs [progressive web apps], and trying to push the web’s boundaries with its Project Fugu initiatives? In my view, Google is more forward-looking than Mozilla and Apple in web capabilities, but perhaps you have a different viewpoint on that.

I can see why PWAs are supposed to be the next big thing. Seamless cross-device and platform experiences are a lot cheaper to realize for companies and so much faster to write for devs, and that’s great. From my outside privacy-focused perspective, though, I do have some concerns.

If you have read my comic you might imagine that I for one would never want to use apps that you are basically always logged into, that are always on even when you’re offline, collecting user behavior in the background. And when you get back online, elements like the manifest start_url open all doors for fingerprinting and even respawning cookies that had been cleared before.

It’s like I say in the comic: “How much are we willing to sacrifice for another 10th of a second of loading speed?” Considering this technology is not created in an economic vacuum but by G-MAFIA All-Stars like Google and Microsoft, it’s a hard pass for me.

Contra Chrome

From page 5

It doesn’t appear that you use social media that much. (Or at least I couldn’t find you on Twitter or LinkedIn!) You do use Mastodon, but I wondered what other social media type services you use?

I’m trying to use future-proof services that no capricious billionaire can ever buy. So decentralization is important for me, as is an open source code. I love Mastodon for its algorithm-free timelines and built-in anti-harassment measures, and currently don’t need anything else.

Your answer begs the follow-up question: what do you think of “Web3” and the promise of decentralized blockchain apps? Or maybe you prefer non-blockchain decentralized apps (e.g. Scuttlebutt apps)?

I have very little regard for everything “blockchain” or “NFT,” as we only have one planet to burn. Scuttlebutt looks interesting and promising, but I don’t think that at this point, mass adoption is possible (or the goal).

The Fediverse, on the other hand, has Pixelfed ready to use for Instagram refugees, BookWyrm for recovering Goodreads users, or PeerTube as a YouTube alternative. So people could hop onto these services with ease and change things up.

As regards Web3, I instantly had to think of the Web0 manifesto, do you know it?

Yes, I had come across that when it first came out. I’ve been exploring the Web3 world this year in my writing, and although I’m still somewhat skeptical, I do think parts of it are promising and will merge in time with the current web. OK, so we know what you think of Google now, but how do the other big tech companies compare in terms of privacy?

It’s all more or less the same to me, to be honest. All big tech companies have adopted Google’s business model of offering supposedly “free” services, locking you into walled gardens and exploiting the resulting dependencies by relentlessly mining your data.

Apple is only a mild variation to me, as they are merely using the concept of “privacy” for controlling the market. They are a part of PRISM just as Google is, and last year’s abhorrent device-scanning plans are proof that should they ever need to sell the huge amounts of user data they collect, they wouldn’t blink an eye.

Contra Chrome

From page 28

Finally, a lot of our readers work in application development, so is there any advice you’d like to give them in regards to respecting user privacy in their apps going forward?

Three words that make all the difference: Privacy by design.

You know, usually Google devs and me don’t agree on a lot of things when it comes to ethics or principles, but just like Dion Almaer, I’m genuinely sad this comic had to come out.

We live in a weird world where devs build privacy-invading apps, and activists, scholars and the occasional comic artist have to warn, educate, upgrade the general public. This is not how things are supposed to work. No one is building glass houses whose inhabitants then have to protect themselves with blinds, curtains and tapestries.

I firmly believe that in the long run, the mass surveillance mechanisms of Google and others can only lead to totalitarianism. Because it comes down to one simple equation: Those political entities with the most money will be able to manipulate the masses.

So devs have a crucial role in a free democracy, and they need to realize that with such great power comes incredible responsibility. They do not code in a societal vacuum, and if they don’t want to wake up one day in an inhumane dystopia of their making, they need to protect the invaluable data of their users with utmost care. All other functionalities of the app — including loading speed — have to be subordinated to this cause.

That’s my message and, frankly, my plea: Privacy by design.

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