Facebook brings its own Chromium WebView browser to Android app • The Register

analysis Meta’s Facebook has been testing its own custom browser engine in its Android app and plans to further distribute the code, ostensibly to improve security and user experience.

By default, Facebook on Android chooses that users open web links within the app and not in the mobile browser, which is set as the default in the Android system settings. It does this, like many other popular Android apps, by using Android System WebView, a Google-provided component that loads web pages within the app.

This has some benefits for the user in terms of resource efficiency, but comes at the expense of the user’s browser choices, saved passwords, retained login status, and browser settings related to privacy, accessibility, and extensions.

WebViews also have some benefits for Facebook in terms of improved engagement metrics — taking people out of the app to a standalone web browser means they might not return right away. It also means improved visibility into user activity – WebViews expose more user data and activity than standalone browsers.

One industry source described WebView browsers as doing this The registry Dubbed “tracker-blocker-blocker”, the salient issue is what this means for user choice.

Coincidentally, Facebook parent Meta was sued last month for allegedly failing to adequately disclose the consequences of WebView-based browsing — a charge the company denies.

Facebook considers the iOS WebView – powered by Safari’s WebKit engine – to be less than ideal, since as a system component it’s only updated with iOS updates. Things work differently on Android. Android system WebView and Chrome can be updated via Google Play.

Despite this, according to Facebook Software Engineer Manager Nate Schloss, Android users often don’t bother to update their Chrome app or apps with WebViews, which can compromise security and result in a poorer user experience.

Blurred lines

“To help solve these problems – and following the precedent of browser vendors like Microsoft Edge, Samsung Internet, and Mozilla Firefox all shipping custom browser engines on Android – we spent a number of years developing and testing a separate Chromium-based WebView ‘ Schloss said in a blog post on Friday, blurring the distinction between companies that offer standalone browsers for Android and Facebook, which offers an embeddable browser component.

According to Schloss, Facebook’s Chromium-based WebView will replace Android’s WebView system (also Chromium-based but controlled by Google) for Facebook in Android’s in-app browser.

“This WebView can be updated in sync with Facebook app updates and act as a drop-in replacement for the WebView system within the Facebook app without impacting or altering the user experience in any way,” explains Schloss.

The registry Meta asked if people can use their preferred browser to open links that appear on the Facebook app.

A spokesperson said: “If they prefer, users can use the menu in our in-app browser to select the option to open links in the system browser. Additionally, users who cannot access all of the features of our technologies (including the in-app browsers) may access Facebook and Instagram over the internet rather than through our apps.”

However, there is no way to set the Facebook app to open all links in the user’s chosen default Android browser. Links must first be opened in the Facebook app and then the user must tap the ••• More options menu to load the page a second time in the user’s standalone browser – not exactly a seamless user experience. Meta’s spokesperson noted that this is more than some competing apps allow — TikTok doesn’t support opening links in an external browser, for example.

Facebook could have used a different technology to implement its WebView replacement, Chrome Custom Tabs (CCTs). Introduced in 2015, Google recommends WebViews for hosting your own content within an app and CCTs for external content.

“If your app redirects people to URLs outside your domain, we recommend using custom tabs,” the company’s documentation suggests, given CCT’s “support for the same web platform features and capabilities as the browsers” and various other benefits like the from Google provide Safe Browsing system.

We can do this

However, Meta’s spokesman said The registry that CCTs for the Facebook app would not work on Android: “Our in-app browser provides features and security protections for users that we cannot create with custom Chrome tabs. We can more easily detect attacks from malicious actors, e.g. B. when a scammer tries to redirect users to a malicious website.”

Apparently, Meta Web attacks would rather handle itself than provide data to Google’s Safe Browsing service. And its concern for security appears to be limited to the mobile environment — Facebook has shown no sign of trying to change how desktop users experience the social network. In addition, WebViews have their own security issues [PDF] in the past.

In-app browsers (WebViews and the like) have been the subject of some debate over the last few years, notably by Alex Russell, currently at Microsoft and formerly at Google, and Felix Krause, founder of fastlane.tools. These “Franken browsers” continue to exist because Apple and Google support them in their respective mobile operating systems.

Part of the reason for this may have something to do with showing regulators that there is competition to ward off antitrust litigation.

Indeed in his comments [PDF] According to the UK’s Competition & Markets Authority, Google cites native apps as evidence that the company has competition “that allow users to view web content in in-app browsers that have significant traffic”.

Google acknowledges that CMA’s interim report “raises concerns about in-app browsers overriding users’ chosen default browsers.” However, the company supports the CMA’s observation that “the decision as to whether a native app launches an in-app browser, and if so which browser, rests with the respective app developer, not Google.”

The Facebook app made that choice, although it allows users to choose for themselves on the second page load. ®

https://www.theregister.com/2022/10/04/metas_facebook_webview_chromium/ Facebook brings its own Chromium WebView browser to Android app • The Register

Rick Schindler

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