GOOGLE WANTS TO KILL THE URL
Google’s Chrome browser turns 10 today, and in its short life it has introduced a lot of radical changes to the web. From popularizing auto-updates to aggressively promoting HTTPS web encryption, the Chrome security team likes to grapple with big, conceptual problems. That reach and influence can be divisive, though, and as Chrome looks ahead to its next 10 years, the team is mulling its most controversial initiative yet: fundamentally rethinking URLs across the web.
Uniform Resource Locators are the familiar web addresses you use every day. They are listed in the web’s DNS address book and direct browsers to the right Internet Protocol addresses that identify and differentiate web servers. In short, you navigate to WIRED.com to read WIRED so you don’t have to manage complicated routing protocols and strings of numbers. But over time, URLs have gotten more and more difficult to read and understand. As web functionality has expanded, URLs have increasingly become unintelligible strings of gibberish combining components from third-parties or being masked by link shorteners and redirect schemes. And on mobile devices there isn’t room to display much of a URL at all.
The resulting opacity has been a boon for cyber criminals who build malicious sites to exploit the confusion. They impersonate legitimate institutions, launch phishing schemes, hawk malicious downloads, and run phony web services—all because it’s difficult for web users to keep track of who they’re dealing with. Now the Chrome team says it’s time for a massive change.
“People have a really hard time understanding URLs,” says Adrienne Porter Felt, Chrome’s engineering manager. “They’re hard to read, it’s hard to know which part of them is supposed to be trusted, and in general I don’t think URLs are working as a good way to convey site identity. So we want to move toward a place where web identity is understandable by everyone—they know who they’re talking to when they’re using a website and they can reason about whether they can trust them. But this will mean big changes in how and when Chrome displays URLs. We want to challenge how URLs should be displayed and question it as we’re figuring out the right way to convey identity.”
If you’re having a tough time thinking of what could possibly be used in place of URLs, you’re not alone. Academics have considered options over the years, but the problem doesn’t have an easy answer. Porter Felt and her colleague Justin Schuh, Chrome’s principal engineer, say that even the Chrome team itself is still divided on the best solution to propose. And the group won’t offer any examples at this point of the types of schemes they are considering.