Free Software Charities

I believe we have reached a point where it is time to discontinue donations to the Free Software Foundation, in light of the outrageously poor judgment shown by its board of directors in reinstating Richard Stallman to the board. I haven’t seen other free software community members calling for cutting off donations yet. Even the open letter doesn’t call for this. Edit: I’ve been pointed to the line “We urge those in a position to do so to stop supporting the Free Software Foundation,” which surely implies a call to stop donating, so I was wrong about that.

I have no doubt there will be follow-up blog posts explaining why cutting off donations is harmful to the community and the FSF’s staff, and will hurt the FSF in the long-term… but seriously, enough is enough. If we don’t draw the line here, there will never be any line anywhere. Continued support for the FSF is continued complicity, and is harming rather than helping advance the ideals of the free software community. So, where should you donate instead?

The Software Freedom Conservancy is a great choice. It hosts many member projects you’re probably familiar with, including Outreachy and git, among many others. It does some GPL compliance work and takes a strict view on software freedom. For US donors, it is a 501(c)(3), so your donations may be tax-deductible. This is where I send my free software donations not directed to GNOME. Read its statement on recent events at the FSF.

Another good option, especially for people in the EU, is the Free Software Foundation Europe, an independently-run sister organization of the FSF. If you’re not familiar with FSFE, think of it as a more moderate version of the FSF, with a special focus on Europe. It shares the same goals as the FSF, but with more reasonable leadership and much less popcorn. Read its statement on recent events at the FSF.

Most people reading this blog are likely GNOME users. Contributing to GNOME is a great way to support the desktop you use to get things done. Monthly sustaining donations are especially appreciated. Despite the historical association between GNOME and GNU, GNOME has had little to do with GNU for a long time now. The GNOME Foundation is run independently and has formally signed the open letter calling for the resignation of the FSF’s board of directors. For US donors, it is a 501(c)(3). (If you use KDE, donate to KDE here.)

It should be obvious, but this is a personal blog. None of the above organizations have endorsed cutting off donations to the FSF, to my knowledge. They would probably find it to be in poor taste to abuse a crisis to solicit funds. But I doubt they’d object if you send some money their way.

Epiphany 3.38 and WebKitGTK 2.30

It’s that time of year again: a new GNOME release, and with it, a new Epiphany. The pace of Epiphany development has increased significantly over the last few years thanks to an increase in the number of active contributors. Most notably, Jan-Michael Brummer has solved dozens of bugs and landed many new enhancements, Alexander Mikhaylenko has polished numerous rough edges throughout the browser, and Andrei Lisita has landed several significant improvements to various Epiphany dialogs. That doesn’t count the work that Igalia is doing to maintain WebKitGTK, the WPE graphics stack, and libsoup, all of which is essential to delivering quality Epiphany releases, nor the work of the GNOME localization teams to translate it to your native language. Even if Epiphany itself is only the topmost layer of this technology stack, having more developers working on Epiphany itself allows us to deliver increased polish throughout the user interface layer, and I’m pretty happy with the result. Let’s take a look at what’s new.

Intelligent Tracking Prevention

Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) is the headline feature of this release. Safari has had ITP for several years now, so if you’re familiar with how ITP works to prevent cross-site tracking on macOS or iOS, then you already know what to expect here.  If you’re more familiar with Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection, or Chrome’s nothing (crickets: chirp, chirp!), then WebKit’s ITP is a little different from what you’re used to. ITP relies on heuristics that apply the same to all domains, so there are no blocklists of naughty domains that should be targeted for content blocking like you see in Firefox. Instead, a set of innovative restrictions is applied globally to all web content, and a separate set of stricter restrictions is applied to domains classified as “prevalent” based on your browsing history. Domains are classified as prevalent if ITP decides the domain is capable of tracking your browsing across the web, or non-prevalent otherwise. (The public-friendly terminology for this is “Classification as Having Cross-Site Tracking Capabilities,” but that is a mouthful, so I’ll stick with “prevalent.” It makes sense: domains that are common across many websites can track you across many websites, and domains that are not common cannot.)

ITP is enabled by default in Epiphany 3.38, as it has been for several years now in Safari, because otherwise only a small minority of users would turn it on. ITP protections are designed to be effective without breaking too many websites, so it’s fairly safe to enable by default. (You may encounter a few broken websites that have not been updated to use the Storage Access API to store third-party cookies. If so, you can choose to turn off ITP in the preferences dialog.)

For a detailed discussion covering ITP’s tracking mitigations, see Tracking Prevention in WebKit. I’m not an expert myself, but the short version is this: full third-party cookie blocking across all websites (to store a third-party cookie, websites must use the Storage Access API to prompt the user for permission); cookie-blocking latch mode (“once a request is blocked from using cookies, all redirects of that request are also blocked from using cookies”); downgraded third-party referrers (“all third-party referrers are downgraded to their origins by default”) to avoid exposing the path component of the URL in the referrer; blocked third-party HSTS (“HSTS […] can only be set by the first-party website […]”) to stop abuse by tracker scripts; detection of cross-site tracking via link decoration and 24-hour expiration time for all cookies created by JavaScript on the landing page when detected; a 7-day expiration time for all other cookies created by JavaScript (yes, this applies to first-party cookies); and a 7-day extendable lifetime for all other script-writable storage, extended whenever the user interacts with the website (necessary because tracking companies began using first-party scripts to evade the above restrictions). Additionally, for prevalent domains only, domains engaging in bounce tracking may have cookies forced to SameSite=strict, and Verified Partitioned Cache is enabled (cached resources are re-downloaded after seven days and deleted if they fail certain privacy tests). Whew!

WebKit has many additional privacy protections not tied to the ITP setting and therefore not discussed here — did you know that cached resources are partioned based on the first-party domain? — and there’s more that’s not very well documented which I don’t understand and haven’t mentioned (tracker collusion!), but that should give you the general idea of how sophisticated this is relative to, say, Chrome (chirp!). Thanks to John Wilander from Apple for his work developing and maintaining ITP, and to Carlos Garcia for getting it working on Linux. If you’re interested in the full history of how ITP has evolved over the years to respond to the changing threat landscape (e.g. tracking prevention tracking), see John’s WebKit blog posts. You might also be interested in WebKit’s Tracking Prevention Policy, which I believe is the strictest anti-tracking stance of any major web engine. TL;DR: “we treat circumvention of shipping anti-tracking measures with the same seriousness as exploitation of security vulnerabilities. If a party attempts to circumvent our tracking prevention methods, we may add additional restrictions without prior notice.” No exceptions.

Updated Website Data Preferences

As part of the work on ITP, you’ll notice that Epiphany’s cookie storage preferences have changed a bit. Since ITP enforces full third-party cookie blocking, it no longer makes sense to have a separate cookie storage preference for that, so I replaced the old tri-state cookie storage setting (always accept cookies, block third-party cookies, block all cookies) with two switches: one to toggle ITP, and one to toggle all website data storage.

Previously, it was only possible to block cookies, but this new setting will additionally block localStorage and IndexedDB, web features that allow websites to store arbitrary data in your browser, similar to cookies. It doesn’t really make much sense to block cookies but allow other types of data storage, so the new preferences should better enforce the user’s intent behind disabling cookies. (This preference does not yet block media keys, service workers, or legacy offline web application cache, but it probably should.) I don’t really recommend disabling website data storage, since it will cause compatibility issues on many websites, but this option is there for those who want it. Disabling ITP is also not something I want to recommend, but it might be necessary to access certain broken websites that have not yet been updated to use the Storage Access API.

Accordingly, Andrei has removed the old cookies dialog and moved cookie management into the Clear Personal Data dialog, which is a better place because anyone clearing cookies for a particular website is likely to also want to clear other personal data. (If you want to delete a website’s cookies, then you probably don’t want to leave its SQL databases intact, right?) He had to remove the ability to clear data from a particular point in time, because WebKit doesn’t support this operation for cookies, but that function is probably  rarely-used and I think the benefit of the change should outweigh the cost. (We could bring it back in the future if somebody wants to try implementing that feature in WebKit, but I suspect not many users will notice.) Treating cookies as separate and different from other forms of website data storage no longer makes sense in 2020, and it’s good to have finally moved on from that antiquated practice.

New HTML Theme

Carlos Garcia has added a new Adwaita-based HTML theme to WebKitGTK 2.30, and removed support for rendering HTML elements using the GTK theme (except for scrollbars). Trying to use the GTK theme to render web content was fragile and caused many web compatibility problems that nobody ever managed to solve. The GTK developers were never very fond of us doing this in the first place, and the foreign drawing API required to do so has been removed from GTK 4, so this was also good preparation for getting WebKitGTK ready for GTK 4. Carlos’s new theme is similar to Adwaita, but gradients have been toned down or removed in order to give a flatter, neutral look that should blend in nicely with all pages while still feeling modern.

This should be a fairly minor style change for Adwaita users, but a very large change for anyone using custom themes. I don’t expect everyone will be happy, but please trust that this will at least result in better web compatibility and fewer tricky theme-related bug reports.

Screenshot demonstrating new HTML theme vs. GTK theme
Left: Adwaita GTK theme controls rendered by WebKitGTK 2.28. Right: hardcoded Adwaita-based HTML theme with toned down gradients.

Although scrollbars will still use the GTK theme as of WebKitGTK 2.30, that will no longer be possible to do in GTK 4, so themed scrollbars are almost certain to be removed in the future. That will be a noticeable disappointment in every app that uses WebKitGTK, but I don’t see any likely solution to this.

Media Permissions

Jan-Michael added new API in WebKitGTK 2.30 to allow muting individual browser tabs, and hooked it up in Epiphany. This is good when you want to silence just one annoying tab without silencing everything.

Meanwhile, Charlie Turner added WebKitGTK API for managing autoplay policies. Videos with sound are now blocked from autoplaying by default, while videos with no sound are still allowed. Charlie hooked this up to Epiphany’s existing permission manager popover, so you can change the behavior for websites you care about without affecting other websites.

Screenshot displaying new media autoplay permission settings
Configure your preferred media autoplay policy for a website near you today!

Improved Dialogs

In addition to his work on the Clear Data dialog, Andrei has also implemented many improvements and squashed bugs throughout each view of the preferences dialog, the passwords dialog, and the history dialog, and refactored the code to be much more maintainable. Head over to his blog to learn more about his accomplishments. (Thanks to Google for sponsoring Andrei’s work via Google Summer of Code, and to Alexander for help mentoring.)

Additionally, Adrien Plazas has ported the preferences dialog to use HdyPreferencesWindow, bringing a pretty major design change to the view switcher:

Screenshot showing changes to the preferences dialog
Left: Epiphany 3.36 preferences dialog. Right: Epiphany 3.38. Note the download settings are present in the left screenshot but missing from the right screenshot because the right window is using flatpak, and the download settings are unavailable in flatpak.

User Scripts

User scripts (like Greasemonkey) allow you to run custom JavaScript on websites. WebKit has long offered user script functionality alongside user CSS, but previous versions of Epiphany only exposed user CSS. Jan-Michael has added the ability to configure a user script as well. To enable, visit the Appearance tab in the preferences dialog (a somewhat odd place, but it really needs to be located next to user CSS due to the tight relationship there). Besides allowing you to do, well, basically anything, this also significantly enhances the usability of user CSS, since now you can apply certain styles only to particular websites. The UI is a little primitive — your script (like your CSS) has to be one file that will be run on every website, so don’t try to design a complex codebase using your user script — but you can use conditional statements to limit execution to specific websites as you please, so it should work fairly well for anyone who has need of it. I fully expect 99.9% of users will never touch user scripts or user styles, but it’s nice for power users to have these features available if needed.

HTTP Authentication Password Storage

Jan-Michael and Carlos Garcia have worked to ensure HTTP authentication passwords are now stored in Epiphany’s password manager rather than by WebKit, so they can now be viewed and deleted from Epiphany, which required some new WebKitGTK API to do properly. Unfortunately, WebKitGTK saves network passwords using the default network secret schema, meaning its passwords (saved by older versions of Epiphany) are all leaked: we have no way to know which application owns those passwords, so we don’t have any way to know which passwords were stored by WebKit and which can be safely managed by Epiphany going forward. Accordingly, all previously-stored HTTP authentication passwords are no longer accessible; you’ll have to use seahorse to look them up manually if you need to recover them. HTTP authentication is not very commonly-used nowadays except for internal corporate domains, so hopefully this one-time migration snafu will not be a major inconvenience to most users.

New Tab Animation

Jan-Michael has added a new animation when you open a new tab. If the newly-created tab is not visible in the tab bar, then the right arrow will flash to indicate success, letting you know that you actually managed to open the page. Opening tabs out of view happens too often currently, but at least it’s a nice improvement over not knowing whether you actually managed to open the tab or not. This will be improved further next year, because Alexander is working on a completely new tab widget to replace GtkNotebook.

New View Source Theme

Jim Mason changed view source mode to use a highlight.js theme designed to mimic Firefox’s syntax highlighting, and added dark mode support.

Image showing dark mode support in view source mode
Embrace the dark.

And More…

  • WebKitGTK 2.30 now supports video formats in image elements, thanks to Philippe Normand. You’ll notice that short GIF-style videos will now work on several major websites where they previously didn’t.
  • I added a new WebKitGTK 2.30 API to expose the paste as plaintext editor command, which was previously internal but fully-functional. I’ve hooked it up in Epiphany’s context menu as “Paste Text Only.” This is nice when you want to discard markup when pasting into a rich text editor (such as the WordPress editor I’m using to write this post).
  • Jan-Michael has implemented support for reordering pinned tabs. You can now drag to reorder pinned tabs any way you please, subject to the constraint that all pinned tabs stay left of all unpinned tabs.
  • Jan-Michael added a new import/export menu, and the bookmarks import/export features have moved there. He also added a new feature to import passwords from Chrome. Meanwhile, ignapk added support for importing bookmarks from HTML (compatible with Firefox).
  • Jan-Michael added a new preference to web apps to allow running them in the background. When enabled, closing the window will only hide the the window: everything will continue running. This is useful for mail apps, music players, and similar applications.
  • Continuing Jan-Michael’s list of accomplishments, he removed Epiphany’s previous hidden setting to set a mobile user agent header after discovering that it did not work properly, and replaced it by adding support in WebKitGTK 2.30 for automatically setting a mobile user agent header depending on the chassis type detected by logind. This results in a major user experience improvement when using Epiphany as a mobile browser. Beware: this functionality currently does not work in flatpak because it requires the creation of a new desktop portal.
  • Stephan Verbücheln has landed multiple fixes to improve display of favicons on hidpi displays.
  • Zach Harbort fixed a rounding error that caused the zoom level to display oddly when changing zoom levels.
  • Vanadiae landed some improvements to the search engine configuration dialog (with more to come) and helped investigate a crash that occurs when using the “Set as Wallpaper” function under Flatpak. The crash is pretty tricky, so we wound up disabling that function under Flatpak for now. He also updated screenshots throughout the  user help.
  • Sabri Ünal continued his effort to document and standardize keyboard shortcuts throughout GNOME, adding a few missing shortcuts to the keyboard shortcuts dialog.

Epiphany 3.38 will be the final Epiphany 3 release, concluding a decade of releases that start with 3. We will match GNOME in following a new version scheme going forward, dropping the leading 3 and the confusing even/odd versioning. Onward to Epiphany 40!

Disrupted CVE Assignment Process

Due to an invalid TLS certificate on MITRE’s CVE request form, I have — ironically — been unable to request a new CVE for a TLS certificate verification vulnerability for a couple weeks now. (Note: this vulnerability does not affect WebKit and I’m only aware of one vulnerable application, so impact is limited; follow the link if you’re curious.) MITRE, if you’re reading my blog, your website’s contact form promises a two-day response, but it’s been almost three weeks now, still waiting.

Update May 29: I received a response today stating my request has been forwarded to MITRE’s IT department, and less than an hour later the issue is now fixed. I guess that’s score +1 for blog posts. Thanks for fixing this, MITRE.

Browser security warning on MITRE's CVE request form

Of course, the issue is exactly the same as it was five years ago, the server is misconfigured to send only the final server certificate with no chain of trust, guaranteeing failure in Epiphany or with command-line tools. But the site does work in Chrome, and sometimes works in Firefox… what’s going on? Again, same old story. Firefox is accepting incomplete certificate chains based on which websites you’ve visited in the past, so you might be able to get to the CVE request form or not depending on which websites you’ve previously visited in Firefox, but a fresh profile won’t work. Chrome has started downloading the missing intermediate certificate automatically from the issuer, which Firefox refuses to implement for fear of allowing the certificate authority to track which websites you’re visiting. Eventually, we’ll hopefully have this feature in GnuTLS, because Firefox-style nondeterministic certificate verification is nuts and we have to do one or the other to be web-compatible, but for now that is not supported and we reject the certificate. (I fear I may have delayed others from implementing the GnuTLS support by promising to implement it myself and then never delivering… sorry.)

We could have a debate on TLS certificate verification and the various benefits or costs of the Firefox vs. Chrome approach, but in the end it’s an obvious misconfiguration and there will be no further CVE requests from me until it’s fixed. (Update May 29: the issue is now fixed. :) No, I’m not bypassing the browser security warning, even though I know exactly what’s wrong. We can’t expect users to take these seriously if we skip them ourselves.

Patching Vendored Rust Dependencies

Recently I had a difficult time trying to patch a CVE in librsvg. The issue itself was simple to patch because Federico kindly backported the series of commits required to fix it to the branch we are using downstream. Problem was, one of the vendored deps in the old librsvg tarball did not build with our modern rustc, because the code contained a borrow error that was not caught by older versions of rustc. After finding the appropriate upstream fix, I tried naively patching the vendored dep, but that failed because cargo tries very hard to prevent you from patching its dependencies, and complains if the dependency does not match its checksum in Cargo.lock. I tried modifying the checksum in Cargo.lock, but then it complains that you modified the Cargo.lock. It seems cargo is designed to make patching dependencies as difficult as possible, and that not much thought was put into how cargo would be used from rpmbuild with no network access.

Anyway, it seems the kosher way to patch Rust dependencies is to add a [patch] section to librsvg’s Cargo.toml, but I could not figure out how to make that work. Eventually, I got some help: you can edit the .cargo-checksum.json of the vendored dependency and change “files” to an empty array, like so:

diff --git a/vendor/cssparser/.cargo-checksum.json b/vendor/cssparser/.cargo-checksum.json
index 246bb70..713372d 100644
--- a/vendor/cssparser/.cargo-checksum.json
+++ b/vendor/cssparser/.cargo-checksum.json
@@ -1 +1 @@
-{"files":{".cargo-ok":"e3b0c44298fc1c149afbf4c8996fb92427ae41e4649b934ca495991b7852b855",".travis.yml":"f1fb4b65964c81bc1240544267ea334f554ca38ae7a74d57066f4d47d2b5d568","Cargo.toml":"7807f16d417eb1a6ede56cd4ba2da6c5c63e4530289b3f0848f4b154e18eba02","LICENSE":"fab3dd6bdab226f1c08630b1dd917e11fcb4ec5e1e020e2c16f83a0a13863e85","README.md":"c5781e673335f37ed3d7acb119f8ed33efdf6eb75a7094b7da2abe0c3230adb8","build.rs":"b29fc57747f79914d1c2fb541e2bb15a003028bb62751dcb901081ccc174b119","build/match_byte.rs":"2c84b8ca5884347d2007f49aecbd85b4c7582085526e2704399817249996e19b","docs/.nojekyll":"e3b0c44298fc1c149afbf4c8996fb92427ae41e4649b934ca495991b7852b855","docs/404.html":"025861f76f8d1f6d67c20ab624c6e418f4f824385e2dd8ad8732c4ea563c6a2e","docs/index.html":"025861f76f8d1f6d67c20ab624c6e418f4f824385e2dd8ad8732c4ea563c6a2e","src/color.rs":"c60f1b0ab7a2a6213e434604ee33f78e7ef74347f325d86d0b9192d8225ae1cc","src/cow_rc_str.rs":"541216f8ef74ee3cc5cbbc1347e5f32ed66588c401851c9a7d68b867aede1de0","src/from_bytes.rs":"331fe63af2123ae3675b61928a69461b5ac77799fff3ce9978c55cf2c558f4ff","src/lib.rs":"46c377e0c9a75780d5cb0bcf4dfb960f0fb2a996a13e7349bb111b9082252233","src/macros.rs":"adb9773c157890381556ea83d7942dcc676f99eea71abbb6afeffee1e3f28960","src/nth.rs":"5c70fb542d1376cddab69922eeb4c05e4fcf8f413f27563a2af50f72a47c8f8c","src/parser.rs":"9ed4aec998221eb2d2ba99db2f9f82a02399fb0c3b8500627f68f5aab872adde","src/rules_and_declarations.rs":"be2c4f3f3bb673d866575b6cb6084f1879dff07356d583ca9a3595f63b7f916f","src/serializer.rs":"4ccfc9b4fe994aab3803662bbf31cc25052a6a39531073a867b14b224afe42dd","src/size_of_tests.rs":"e5f63c8c18721cc3ff7a5407e84f9889ffa10e66da96e8510a696c3e00ad72d5","src/tests.rs":"80b02c80ab0fd580dad9206615c918e0db7dff63dfed0feeedb66f317d24b24b","src/tokenizer.rs":"429b2cba419cf8b923fbcc32d3bd34c0b39284ebfcb9fc29b8eb8643d8d5f312","src/unicode_range.rs":"c1c4ed2493e09d248c526ce1ef8575a5f8258da3962b64ffc814ef3bdf9780d0"},"package":"8a807ac3ab7a217829c2a3b65732b926b2befe6a35f33b4bf8b503692430f223"}
\ No newline at end of file
+{"files":{},"package":"8a807ac3ab7a217829c2a3b65732b926b2befe6a35f33b4bf8b503692430f223"}

Then cargo will stop complaining and you can patch the dependency. Success!

Sandboxing WebKitGTK Apps

When you connect to a Wi-Fi network, that network might block your access to the wider internet until you’ve signed into the network’s captive portal page. An untrusted network can disrupt your connection at any time by blocking secure requests and replacing the content of insecure requests with its login page. (Of course this can be done on wired networks as well, but in practice it mainly happens on Wi-Fi.) To detect a captive portal, NetworkManager sends a request to a special test address (e.g. http://fedoraproject.org/static/hotspot.txt) and checks to see whether it the content has been replaced. If so, GNOME Shell will open a little WebKitGTK browser window to display http://nmcheck.gnome.org, which, due to the captive portal, will be hijacked by your hotel or airport or whatever to display the portal login page. Rephrased in security lingo: an untrusted network may cause GNOME Shell to load arbitrary web content whenever it wants. If that doesn’t immediately sound dangerous to you, let’s ask me from four years ago why that might be bad:

Web engines are full of security vulnerabilities, like buffer overflows and use-after-frees. The details don’t matter; what’s important is that skilled attackers can turn these vulnerabilities into exploits, using carefully-crafted HTML to gain total control of your user account on your computer (or your phone). They can then install malware, read all the files in your home directory, use your computer in a botnet to attack websites, and do basically whatever they want with it.

If the web engine is sandboxed, then a second type of attack, called a sandbox escape, is needed. This makes it dramatically more difficult to exploit vulnerabilities.

The captive portal helper will pop up and load arbitrary web content without user interaction, so there’s nothing you as a user could possibly do about it. This makes it a tempting target for attackers, so we want to ensure that users are safe in the absence of a sandbox escape. Accordingly, beginning with GNOME 3.36, the captive portal helper is now sandboxed.

How did we do it? With basically one line of code (plus a check to ensure the WebKitGTK version is new enough). To sandbox any WebKitGTK app, just call webkit_web_context_set_sandbox_enabled(). Ta-da, your application is now magically secure!

No, really, that’s all you need to do. So if it’s that simple, why isn’t the sandbox enabled by default? It can break applications that use WebKitWebExtension to run custom code in the sandboxed web process, so you’ll need to test to ensure that your application still works properly after enabling the sandbox. (The WebKitGTK sandbox will become mandatory in the future when porting applications to GTK 4. That’s thinking far ahead, though, because GTK 4 isn’t supported yet at all.) You may need to use webkit_web_context_add_path_to_sandbox() to give your web extension access to directories that would otherwise be blocked by the sandbox.

The sandbox is critically important for web browsers and email clients, which are constantly displaying untrusted web content. But really, every app should enable it. Fix your apps! Then thank Patrick Griffis from Igalia for developing WebKitGTK’s sandbox, and the bubblewrap, Flatpak, and xdg-desktop-portal developers for providing the groundwork that makes it all possible.

Epiphany 3.36 and WebKitGTK 2.28

So, what’s new in Epiphany 3.36?

PDF.js

Once upon a time, beginning with GNOME 3.14, Epiphany had supported displaying PDF documents via the Evince NPAPI browser plugin developed by Carlos Garcia Campos. Unfortunately, because NPAPI plugins have to use X11-specific APIs to draw web content, this didn’t  suffice for very long. When GNOME switched to Wayland by default in GNOME 3.24 (yes, that was three years ago!), this functionality was left behind. Using an NPAPI plugin also meant the code was inherently unsandboxable and tied to a deprecated technology. Epiphany disabled support for NPAPI plugins by default in Epiphany 3.30, hiding the functionality behind a hidden setting, which has now finally been removed for Epiphany 3.36, killing off NPAPI for good.

Jan-Michael Brummer, who comaintains Epiphany with me, tried bringing back PDF support for Epiphany 3.34 using libevince, but eventually we decided to give up on this approach due to difficulty solving some user experience issues. Also, the rendering occurred in the unsandboxed UI process, which was again not good for security.

But PDF support is now back in Epiphany 3.36, and much better than before! Thanks to Jan-Michael, Epiphany now supports displaying PDFs using the amazing PDF.js. We are thankful for Mozilla’s work in developing PDF.js and open sourcing it for us to use. Viewing PDFs in Epiphany using PDF.js is more convenient than downloading them and opening them in Evince, and because the PDF is rendered in the sandboxed web process, using web technologies rather than poppler, it’s also approximately one bazillion times more secure.

Screenshot of Epiphany displaying a PDF document
Look, it’s a PDF!

One limitation of PDF.js is that it does not support forms. If you need to fill out PDF forms, you’ll need to download the PDF and open it in Evince, just as you would if using Firefox.

Dark Mode

Thanks to Carlos Garcia, it should finally be possible to use Epiphany with dark GTK themes. WebKitGTK has historically rendered HTML elements using the GTK theme, which has not been good for users of dark themes, which broke badly on many websites, usually due to dark text being drawn on dark backgrounds or various other problems with unexpected dark widgets. Since WebKitGTK 2.28, WebKit will try to manually change to a light GTK theme when it thinks a dark theme is in use, then use the light theme to render web content. (This work has actually been backported to WebKitGTK 2.26.4, so you don’t need to upgrade to WebKitGTK 2.28 to benefit, but the work landed very recently and we haven’t blogged about it yet.) Thanks to Cassidy James from elementary for providing example pages for testing dark mode behavior.

Screenshot demonstrating broken dark mode support
Broken dark mode support prior to WebKitGTK 2.26.4. Notice that the first two pages use dark color schemes when light color schemes are expected, and the dark blue links are hard to read over the dark gray background. Also notice that the text in the second image is unreadable.
Screenshot demonstrating fixed dark mode support in WebKitGTK 2.26.4
Since WebKitGTK 2.26.4, dark mode works as it does in most other browsers. Websites that don’t support dark mode are light, and websites that do support dark mode are dark. Widgets themed using GTK are always light.

Since Carlos had already added support for the prefers-color-scheme media query last year, this now gets us up to dark mode parity with most browsers, except, notably, Safari. Unlike other browsers, Safari allows websites to opt-in to rendering dark system widgets, like WebKitGTK used to do before these changes. Whether to support this in WebKitGTK remains to-be-determined.

Process Swap on Navigation (PSON)

PSON, which debuted in Safari 13, is a major change in WebKit’s process model. PSON is the first component of site isolation, which Chrome has supported for some time, and which Firefox is currently working towards. If you care about web security, you should care a lot about site isolation, because the web browser community has arrived at a consensus that this is the best way to mitigate speculative execution attacks.

Nowadays, all modern web browsers use separate, sandboxed helper processes to render web content, ensuring that the main user interface process, which is unsandboxed, does not touch untrusted web content. Prior to 3.36, Epiphany already used a separate web process to display each browser tab (except for “related views,” where one tab opens another and gains scripting ability over the opened tab, subject to the Same Origin Policy). But in Epiphany 3.36, we now also have a separate web process per website. Each tab will swap between different web processes when navigating between different websites, to prevent any one web process from loading content from different websites.

To make these process swap navigations fast, a pool of prewarmed processes is used to hide the startup cost of launching a new process by ensuring the new process exists before it’s needed; otherwise, the overhead of launching a new web process to perform the navigation would become noticeable. And suspended processes live on after they’re no longer in use because they may be needed for back/forward navigations, which use WebKit’s page cache when possible. (In the page cache, pages are kept in memory indefinitely, to make back/forward navigations fast.)

Due to internal refactoring, PSON previously necessitated some API breakage in WebKitGTK 2.26 that affected Evolution and Geary: WebKitGTK 2.26 deprecated WebKit’s single web process model and required that all applications use one web process per web view, which Evolution and Geary were not, at the time, prepared to handle. We tried hard to avoid this, because we hate to make behavioral changes that break applications, but in this case we decided it was unavoidable. That was the status quo in 2.26, without PSON, which we disabled just before releasing 2.26 in order to limit application breakage to just Evolution and Geary. Now, in WebKitGTK 2.28, PSON is finally available for applications to use on an opt-in basis. (It will become mandatory in the future, for GTK 4 applications.) Epiphany 3.36 opts in. To make this work, Carlos Garcia designed new WebKitGTK APIs for cross-process communication, and used them to replace the private D-Bus server that Epiphany previously used for this purpose.

WebKit still has a long way to go to fully implement site isolation, but PSON is a major step down that road. Thanks to Brady Eidson and Chris Dumez from Apple for making this work, and to Carlos Garcia for handling most of the breakage (there was a lot). As with any major intrusive change of such magnitude, regressions are inevitable, so don’t hesitate to report issues on WebKit Bugzilla.

highlight.js

Once upon a time, WebKit had its own implementation for viewing page source, but this was removed from WebKit way back in 2014, in WebKitGTK 2.6. Ever since, Epiphany would open your default text editor, usually gedit, to display page source. Suffice to say that this was not a very satisfactory solution.

I finally managed to implement view source mode at the Epiphany level for Epiphany 3.30, but I had trouble making syntax highlighting work. I tried using various open source syntax highlighting libraries, but most are designed to highlight small amounts of code, not large web pages. The libraries I tried were not fast enough, so I gave up on syntax highlighting at the time.

Thanks to Jan-Michael, Epiphany 3.36 supports syntax highlighting using highlight.js, so we finally have view source mode working fully properly once again. It works much better than my failed attempts with different JS libraries. Please thank the highlight.js developers for maintaining this library, and for making it open source.

Screenshot displaying Epiphany's view source mode
Colors!

Service Workers

Service workers are now available in WebKitGTK 2.28. Our friends at Apple had already implemented service worker support a couple years ago for Safari 11, but we were pretty slow in bringing this functionality to Linux. Finally, WebKitGTK should now be up to par with Safari in this regard.

Cookies!

Patrick Griffis has updated libsoup and WebKitGTK to support SameSite cookies. He’s also tightened up our cookie policy by implementing strict secure cookies, which prevents http:// pages from setting secure cookies (as they could overwrite secure cookies set by https:// pages).

Adaptive Design

As usual, there are more adaptive design improvements throughout the browser, to provide a better user experience on the Librem 5. There’s still more work to be done here, but Epiphany continues to provide the best user experience of any Linux browser at small screen sizes. Thanks to Adrien Plazas and Jan-Michael for their continued work on this.

Screenshot showing Epiphany running in mobile mode at small window size.
As before, simply resize your browser window to see Epiphany dynamically transition between desktop mode and mobile mode.

elementary OS

With help from Alexander Mikhaylenko, we’ve also upstreamed many elementary OS design changes, which will be used when running under the Pantheon desktop (and not impact users on other desktops), so that the elementary developers don’t need to maintain their customizations as separate patches anymore. This will eliminate a few elementary-specific bugs, including some keyboard shortcuts that were previously broken only in elementary, and some odd tab bar behavior. Although Epiphany still doesn’t feel quite as native as an app designed just for elementary OS, it’s getting closer.

Epiphany 3.34

I failed to blog about Epiphany 3.34 when I released it last September. Hopefully you have updated to 3.34 already, and are already enjoying the two big features from this release: the new adblocker, and the bubblewrap sandbox.

The new adblocker is based on WebKit Content Blockers, which was developed by Apple several years ago. Adrian Perez developed new WebKitGTK API to expose this functionality, changed Epiphany to use it, and deleted Epiphany’s older resource-hungry adblocker that was originally copied from Midori. Previously, Epiphany kept a large GHashMap of compiled regexes in every web process, consuming a very significant amount of RAM for each process. It also took time to compile these regexes when launching each new web process. Now, the adblock filters are instead compiled into an efficient bytecode format that gets mmapped between all web processes to avoid excessive resource use. The bytecode is interpreted by WebKit itself, rather than by Epiphany’s web process extension (which Epiphany uses to execute custom code in WebKit’s web process), for greatly improved performance.

Lastly, Epiphany 3.34 enabled Patrick’s bubblewrap sandbox, which was added in WebKitGTK 2.26. Bubblewrap is an amazing sandboxing tool, already used effectively by flatpak and rpm-ostree, and I’m very pleased with Patrick’s decision to use it for WebKit as well. Because enabling the sandbox can break applications, it is currently opt-in for GTK 3 apps (but will become mandatory for GTK 4 apps). If your application uses WebKitGTK, you really need to take some time to enable this sandbox using webkit_web_context_set_sandbox_enabled(). The sandbox has introduced a couple regressions that we didn’t notice until too late; notably,  printing no longer works, which, half a year later, we still haven’t managed to fix yet. (I’ll try to get to it soon.)

OK, this concludes your 3.36 and 3.34 updates. Onward to 3.38!

Enable Git Commit Message Syntax Highlighting in Vim on Fedora

Were you looking forward to reading an exciting blog post about substantive technical issues affecting GNOME or the Linux desktop community? Sorry, not today.

When setting up new machines, I’m often frustrated by lack of syntax highlighting for git commit messages in vim. On my main workstation, vim uses comforting yellow letters for the first line of my commit message to let me know I’m good on line length, or red background to let me know my first line is too long, and after the first line it automatically inserts a new line break whenever I’ve typed past 72 characters. It’s pretty nice. I can never remember how I get it working in the end, and I spent too long today trying to figure it out yet again. Eventually I realized there was another difference besides the missing syntax highlighting: I couldn’t see the current line or column number, and I couldn’t see the mode indicator either. Now you might be able to guess my mistake: git was not using /usr/bin/vim at all! Because Fedora doesn’t have a default $EDITOR, git defaults to using /usr/bin/vi, which is basically sad trap vim. Solution:

$ git config --global core.editor vim

You also have to install the vim-enhanced package to get /usr/bin/vim, but that’s a lot harder to forget to do.

You’re welcome, Internet!

Let’s Learn Spelling!

Were you looking forward to reading an exciting blog post about substantive technical issues affecting GNOME or the Linux desktop community? Sorry, not today.

GNOME

It used to be an acronym, so it’s all uppercase. Write “GNOME,” never “Gnome.” Please stop writing “Gnome.”

Would it help if you imagine an adorable little garden gnome dying each time you get it wrong?

If you’re lazy and hate capital letters, or for technical contexts like package or project names, then all-lowercase “gnome” might be appropriate, but “Gnome” certainly never is.

Red Hat

This one’s not that hard. Why are some people writing “RedHat” without any space? It doesn’t make sense. Red Hat. Easy!

SUSE and openSUSE

S.u.S.E. and SuSE are both older spellings for the company currently called SUSE. Apparently at some point in the past they realized that the lowercase u was stupid and causes readers’ eyes to bleed.  Can we please let it die?

Similarly, openSUSE is spelled “openSUSE,” not “OpenSUSE.” Do not capitalize the o, even if it’s the first word in a sentence. Do not write “openSuSE” or “OpenSuSE” (which people somehow manage to do even when they’re not trolling) or anything at all other than “openSUSE.” I know this is probably too much to ask, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not so hard.

elementary OS

I don’t often see this one messed up. If you can write elementary OS, you can probably write openSUSE properly too! They’re basically the same structure, right? All lowercase, then all caps. I have faith in you, dear reader! Don’t let me down!

GTK and WebKitGTK

We removed the + from the end of both of these, because it was awful. You’re welcome!

Again, all lowercase is probably OK in technical contexts. “gtk-webkit” is not. WebKitGTK.

Epiphany Technology Preview Users: Action Required

Epiphany Technology Preview has moved from https://sdk.gnome.org to https://nightly.gnome.org. The old Epiphany Technology Preview is now end-of-life. Action is required to update. If you installed Epiphany Technology Preview prior to a couple minutes ago, uninstall it using GNOME Software and then reinstall using this new flatpakref.

Apologies for this disruption.

The main benefit to end users is that you’ll no longer need separate remotes for nightly runtimes and nightly applications, because everything is now hosted in one repo. See Abderrahim’s announcement for full details on why this transition is occurring.

WebKit Vulnerabilities Facilitate Human Rights Abuses

Chinese state actors have recently abused vulnerabilities in the JavaScriptCore component of WebKit to hack the personal computing devices of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China. Mass digital surveillance is a key component of China’s ongoing brutal human rights crackdown in the region.

This has resulted in a public relations drama that is largely a distraction to the issue at hand. Whatever big-company PR departments have to say on the matter, I have no doubt that the developers working on WebKit recognize the severity of this incident and are grateful to Project Zero, which reported these vulnerabilities and has previously provided numerous other high-quality private vulnerability reports. (Many other organizations deserve credit for similar reports, especially Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative.)

WebKit as a project will need to reassess certain software development practices that may have facilitated the abuse of these vulnerabilities. The practice of committing security fixes to open source long in advance of corresponding Safari releases may need to be reconsidered.

Sadly, Uighurs should assume their personal computing devices have been compromised by state-sponsored attackers, and that their private communications are not private. Even if not compromised in this particular incident, similar successful attacks are overwhelmingly likely in the future.