What Is WebRTC?

You use this technology more than you know

Screenshot of WebRTC.org home page, with a description of the project and icons of browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Android + iOS)

Web Real-Time Communication, or WebRTC, enables a standard that allows browsers to exchange audio and video. If you’ve heard of apps such as Hangouts or Hangouts Meet, Facebook Messenger, Dialpad, UberConference, Appear.in, among many others, you’ve heard of (or maybe even used) apps that rely on WebRTC to convey voice and video in your browser.

WebRTC defines ways that a browser on your device can establish, manage, and end a remote peer connection. The system includes encryption security standards, as well as support for bandwidth management.

WebRTC Makes Web Meetings Easier

When your browser supports WebRTC, that means you don’t have to install a plug-in or download a special application to communicate with other people. No more time wasted downloading a file, double-clicking on it, or waiting for it to install. If your browser supports WebRTC, web voice and video meetings become simpler.

Granting Microphone and Video Access

You will, however, need to allow access to your device’s microphone or video camera before you can conference. When a real-time conferencing system needs access to either of these devices, you’ll see a prompt that asks you whether you want to “Allow access” to your microphone or camera. Be sure to approve this access only for sites and services you trust.

Which Browsers Support WebRTC?

Chrome, Firefox, and Opera all support WebRTC. The teams that build these three browsers have worked actively to build out support for WebRTC. If you want a browser that includes WebRTC, any of these three would be an excellent option. Apple and Microsoft are also both building out support for WebRTC in Safari (on macOS and iOS) and the new version of Microsoft Edge (based on Chromium), respectively. The site, iswebrtcreadyyet.com, provides a quick visual overview of browser support for WebRTC.

How to Test WebRTC

For a quick test of video conferencing with Web-RTC, you can try an AppRTC video chat client powered by Google App Engine, at https://apprtc.appspot.com/. Follow the link in your browser, choose or create a random room name, then choose Join to start a conference. Join the same room name from a browser on another device to get a sample of how WebRTC works. You can also tweak several settings with AppRTC parameters. Keep in mind this is intended to be a demo and test application, not a full-fledged web conferencing solution!

WebRTC Leak Privacy Concern

A WebRTC connection has the potential to reveal the internet address of your device. This is often called a WebRTC leak, since your device’s IP (internet protocol) address is then potentially available to a remote viewer. In some cases, even if you use a virtual private network (VPN) to hide your device’s internet address, a WebRTC leak could reveal your actual IP address. This could be a potential problem, since an IP address often may be used to identify your region, city, or internet service provider. 

If you don’t need WebRTC voice or video communication services in your browser, you can disable WebRTC. Otherwise, you may prefer to use a VPN to prevent a WebRTC IP address leak. Google offers a WebRTC Network Limiter extension for use in the Chrome browser that offers you options to protect your privacy.

For many people, the benefit of fast, secure, browser-based real-time communications that WebRTC delivers may outweigh privacy concerns associated with a potentially revealed internet address.