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Web browsers have lots of per-domain permissions, like using location, access to camera and microphone, and notifications.

Why don't browsers have a permission for audio? Audio is especially important, since it is the only one of these that can hurt me physically (sometimes I have the audio turned way up, to hear something quiet).

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    This is a great question. – DarrylGodden Sep 7 '17 at 22:51
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    Just FYI, Safari 11 (now in beta) has added a feature to configure which domains can auto-play media. – Tim Grant Sep 8 '17 at 2:31
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    I don't have hard data so won't post this as an answer, but I suspect the answer is simply "because up until recently the majority of websites didn't abuse this privilege, so it wasn't necessary." Historically plenty of browser features have followed this pattern of "open until enough bad actors figure out how to exploit it, so we had to lock it down" (see also CORS, popup windows, onbeforeunload, etc) – Daniel Beck Sep 8 '17 at 12:53
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    One of my PC's at work doesn't have speakers, so, no big deal. Another PC at work does, but I turn them off when I am not showing a video that requires it (I am a teacher), so no problem. At home my 'browsing' tablet has audio shut off, I only turn it up when I want to hear something, then back off again, so no worries. You get the picture. For me, audio is a hard opt-in: I have my hand on the knob, and I have the final say, which by default is NO. Probably from my experience with the OS making noises I didn't want. My first move with a new PC is select the"No Sounds" scheme. – user67695 Sep 8 '17 at 14:00
  • @nocomprende I try have it off too, probably from too many audio-surprise incidents. Problem is, I enjoy listening to music via youtube in the background, and I've turned down the volume on youtube quite a bit (for various reasons), so my master volume is turned up to compensate. I also have a lot of tabs open. – usernumber Sep 8 '17 at 14:09
5

TL;DR: It should be, and likely will be soon

Throughout the history of the internet and browsers, many well-intended features have fallen prey to abuse: popup windows, alerts before closing a page, back-button redirects, mislabeled links, download buttons, etc. Audio is no exception, with auto-playing videos and advertising becoming more common in recent years.

The line between usability and safety

The problem is, audio is the second most used sense when browsing (naturally behind visuals). Almost all video content and especially all music/podcast content we consume requires audio. Disabling this by default or even asking for permission creates the possibility of confusion.

Consider this scenario: a user visits a news website with an auto-playing video ad. They decide to deny audio permission to that website. A few months later, they are reading an article on that site with an embedded YouTube video with some news footage. They click play expecting to hear the audio, but it is disabled. Unless they remember disabling audio for that site and understand how to re-enable the audio permission, they are not hearing that video. Expecting sound and not hearing it is incredibly frustrating, not just for browsers. Users must be made clear of when to disable audio, and how to re-enable it if needed.

Workarounds

Modern browsers today have implemented workarounds to address audio abuse:

  • Chrome and Safari display a sound icon for tabs that are playing audio
  • Chrome (and maybe others) allow users to mute a tab

Future Solutions

Chrome

As of Chrome Beta 62.0.3202.38 (Official Build) beta (64-bit), a sound permission is accessible by: chrome:///flags

Then navigate to "Sound content setting":

enter image description here

If this permission makes it to a final release, it will look like so:

enter image description here

Safari

Apple is taking a more direct approach with Safari, addressing the main problem area of sound: auto-playing videos.

Safari 11 will block auto-play videos (Source: AdAge).

Safari web browser will now feature the ability to keep websites from automatically playing video whether or not consumers want it.

Mobile

I'd look to mobile for another example solution, where most apps don't play sound until the media (video, audio) is tapped on. This could be worked into browsers as well, where a user has to mouse over the content to hear it.

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    Wow! "mute tab" feature! Thank you for mentioning. YLSNED – user67695 Sep 8 '17 at 13:51
  • @nocomprende You're welcome! (I just learned what YLSNED means). – Alan Sep 8 '17 at 14:10
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    Update: The sound permission just rolled out in chrome beta (with chrome://flags Sound content setting set to Enabled). – usernumber Sep 14 '17 at 19:59
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    TIL This site permissions menu exists in Chrome :o Thanks! – FThompson Oct 5 '17 at 2:25
0

I believe this one of the most important questions asked on this site and it should really be seriously considered.

Now coming to the question

TL;DR - Permissions asked by websites through the browser are mostly for inputs

Every application mentions what access permissions it has from the system and the user in it's T&C and Agreement License (which we conveniently skip :P ) but for intrusive permissions like audio/video input, location, natively installed services/plugins that take machine info, etc., the browser prompts us again.

EDIT: As Daniel Beck rightly pointed out, it isn't just for inputs

The browsers do ask for permission for desktop notifications which seems like a good step in the right direction.

With privacy becoming the priority, I wouldn't be surprised if non-visible audio and video-autoplay become permissions that need to be taken explicitly.

  • "Permissions asked by websites through the browser are only for inputs" That would be tidy, but it's not at all accurate -- browsers have to ask permission to display desktop notifications, and many currently ask permission to display flash or java. Users also have the ability to block javascript, animated gifs, plugins, all sorts of things which are "outputs". – Daniel Beck Sep 8 '17 at 13:00
  • It's more "things which are potentially disruptive or annoying", not "things which collect data." – Daniel Beck Sep 8 '17 at 13:01
  • @DanielBeck - Agreed. I shouldn't have written only. Will change that to mostly. Permissions did start for inputs but later extended to intrusive actions (like the ones you have mentioned). That's kinda why I hope that it would extend to audio/video as well rather than just having the speaker icon on the tab – Shreyas Tripathy Sep 8 '17 at 13:03
  • "Permissions did start for inputs but later extended to intrusive actions" Again, I don't think that's accurate. "Block javascript," popup blockers, and "remove styles" were available to users years before data collection and user privacy were issues anyone was much concerned about. – Daniel Beck Sep 8 '17 at 13:10
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    (It's true that back in the day the idiom for setting those permissions was "user goes to the settings page" and not "browser prompts the user for permission" but the result is essentially the same.) – Daniel Beck Sep 8 '17 at 13:12
-1

I see your point. My anecdotal POV is that audio doesn't matter that much to me. Browsers sometimes have a feature showing you which tab is transmitting audio and offer a quick way to mute the responsible tab.

As for explanations. Unlike using your location, accessing your camera, and receiving audio from your microphone, playing sound when you visit a site isn't taking your data. If they're not collecting data from you, they don't need your consent, legally speaking.

Push notifications don't collect data from you, so it doesn't fall into the same category as the data collection consent. I'm guessing they need your consent on that in ways similar to how companies need your consent before sending you email marketing campaigns. They're prompting you to use their products in intrusive ways, it's a marketing strategy, so they need your consent.

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    They may not actually need your consent…but people would riot in the streets if any and every site could send push notifications without some sort of opt-in. – Nate Green Sep 8 '17 at 0:58
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    "They're prompting you to use their products in intrusive ways" I would consider audio to be very intrusive. – usernumber Sep 8 '17 at 8:02
  • Some day advertising and marketing will just quietly go away to die and we will all be far better off. – user67695 Sep 8 '17 at 13:56

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