Ad and tracking blockers have been around for several years, but ever since Apple introduced the ability to install them on iOS devices with the introduction of iOS 9, they have made the mainstream news. Several websites have even gone so far as to prevent users with ad and/or tracking blockers from accessing their websites, claiming the need to display advertising in order to fund their services.
I don’t doubt the truth in this claim as companies and individuals that produce and release content online which is free to view (as in not pay-walled) need to earn some sort of money to fund their work. They have, however, together with advertising and tracking companies, shot themselves in their own feet by pushing their users so far that they are willing to take the extra effort to install browser plugins to make their experience online more pleasant. Let me explain what I mean.
Advertising on the internet has always been a nuisance, but over the past few years, it has become such a burden on the whole internet experience that people have felt compelled to start fighting back against it. A decade or so ago when websites would still try to automatically open a popup window to make sure you saw the advertisement, browsers and computers were not as powerful and capable as they are today. In fact, the entire computing landscape looked quite a lot different!
One of the most frequent means of showing advertisements was a technology called Flash. This enabled advertisers to create especially irritating ads which could be animated, have sound, blink and generally annoy anyone who happened upon one of them. Flash still exists today and is still frequently used to create ads, but browsers are increasingly removing support for it and so it is a dying technology. Instead, advertisers are starting to turn to more modern technologies such as HTML5 in order to produce ever more attention-grabbing-by-being-obnoxious ads.
Mobile devices have played a huge role in the death of Flash as most of them have never supported it due to its tendency to quickly drain batteries. Even without Flash, however, animations on the web still impact the battery life of a phone, tablet or laptop significantly. The more animations, the more the device has to process and therefore the more power it needs. Animations are great and can really spruce up a website nicely, but when they are abused by advertisements which users don’t want to see in the first place in order to grab the user’s attention, they are a serious detriment.
Animated advertisements are expensive for the user. They not only cost his or her attention, but the user must also pay in battery power as well as mobile data usage for the privilege of being advertised to. The latter two cost the user real money. The faster the battery in a mobile device or laptop drains, the more the user has to charge it which costs electricity. The more advertisements or the more complex, animated ads a website has, the more a mobile device has to download which eats through data very quickly. And as we all know, mobile data plans are not exactly cheap. That is arguably one of the reasons why Apple introduced the ability to install ad and tracking blockers in iOS devices.
Even if you’re not using a mobile device, there are plenty of issues that affect users of all device classes, even desktop users. Viruses, trojans and other forms of malware have become far more prominent, delivering users with a nasty surprise either when they click on an ad or even just when he or she is shown an ad without any user interaction whatsoever. Windows desktop users are especially vulnerable here, but they are certainly not entirely alone.
Of course not all advertisements spread viruses, trojans and other malware, but the few that do put users at serious risk. After all, it is impossible for a user to recognize whether an ad is going to infect his or her computer before he or she clicks on it. Ad blockers are then a form of protection and self-defense against this type of behavior. They can help save computers and private user data from unscrupulous malware.
The first time many users install an ad blocker, the first thing he or she notices is how clean the internet suddenly looks. Many website owners who display ads place them in a spot with high visibility. That makes sense from a business perspective because it means the users are more likely to see them and therefore more likely to click on them earning the website owner more money. What that means for the user, however, is that they are bombarded with advertising and may even have troubles finding the actual content they are interested in seeing.
Sometimes it is very difficult to even distinguish between the content and the advertising or, even worse, an ad will cover the entire page forcing the user to click it away in order to view the content they want to see. This is a modern-day popup window. Others will even redirect their users to a different webpage in order to show them a full-page advertisement, telling them that they have to click a link somewhere on the page before they are then redirected to the good content. From a user’s standpoint, this is an absolute nightmare. Usability goes down the toilet for profit.
Ad blockers are useful here because they clean up websites, providing users with a focus on the content they want to view, not the content the advertisers want them to view. They are the user’s way of fighting back against these horrible design choices in order to make a quick buck.
Trackers are related to advertisements because they are mostly used in order to serve ads that are custom made for the user based on their history of web browsing. That means they track users across websites and build a profile of that user’s interests. They track where you’ve been, what you’ve bought, how long you were on each website, what you’ve searched for, what you’ve clicked on, etc, etc. In essence, user tracking has become ubiquitous and has gotten entirely out of control.
Advertisers and online companies generally know more about their users than their spouses and own families do. They can track you between devices and record every detail about your online habits. Most tracking is used to serve customized advertising, but other tracking is solely for the benefit of the website owner. For example, e-commerce platforms, or otherwise known as online shops, often track where you have been on their website, how long, what you’ve clicked on, what you’ve added to your cart, when you made the order and for how much, how often you’ve been to their shop, how much you’ve spent with them, etc. Some of this data they would have anyway, but it becomes much more personal when attached to your name, address, phone number and whatever other information you’ve given them about yourself.
This data is then used not only for the company’s records, but also for marketing. They could, for example, then send out customized newsletters or display customized internal ads. While that isn’t too terrible, here is the real catch: online shops share this data. If you read the shop’s terms of service closely, you will see that it is most likely sent to third parties or “partners” as they are often called which purchase the data from the shop in order to build a profile of their users to serve them advertisements all over the internet. Instead of paying money for user data, these “partners” will often provide a service for the shop that, for example, allows them to view the tracked user data with pretty colorful graphs and fun little battery-draining animations. In return, the “partners” get to sell the data on to advertisers.
But why does this matter? If users have to see advertisements on websites, then aren’t customized ads better than generic ads?
The answers to these questions vary from person to person. Some people don’t mind the tracking and would much rather be catered to while other people find the idea that online shops, website owners, advertising companies, etc know so much about their online habits abhorrent. Fortunately for people in the latter camp, there are tracking blockers. Unfortunately they cannot be 100% effective against every single tracker out there just as ad blockers can’t block every ad there is, but they do help.
Tracking blockers are a means with which people who don’t want to be tracked can fight back against the trackers. Combined with ad blockers, they are the best way to gain back control and prevent websites from collecting and selling your personal data while serving you obnoxious advertising that clutters websites and obscures the interesting content.
The War Against Ad and Tracking Blockers
The introduction of the ability to use ad and tracking blockers in iOS has sparked a war between content producers and content consumers. Many online companies have started blocking content for visitors that use ad and tracking blockers. Instead of seeing, for example, the article they came to the website for, they see a webpage that tells them to deactivate their ad and tracking blockers, then reload the webpage to see its content.
Of course they are doing this to protect profits since many of them earn money through advertising. That worked wonderfully for a while, but they are now reaping the consequences of their own actions. Simply put: they have abused their users and now their users are hitting back.
In the first couple decade or so of the internet, ads were shown to users indiscriminately and tracking was kept to a bare minimum because browsers were just simply not that capable and internet connections were slow. However, as browsers have become more powerful, advertisements have been transformed into more obnoxious beacons of distraction that considerably degrade the online experience.
Users are tired of this and so they are rebelling with the best weapon they have: ad and tracking blockers. There are often ways to get around a company’s blockade, but how to do that exactly varies from website to website. The best thing to do is find an alternative that has not just shot itself in the foot.
Why Ad and Tracking Blockers Are Necessary
Ad and tracking blockers are necessary for a number of reasons. Some of them are more practical reasons while others are more emotional. They put control over the user’s data and viewing experience back into his or her own hands allowing them to decide which websites are allowed to collect their data and display personalized advertisements, if any at all.
For those less concerned about their privacy, there is a long list of practical reasons why ad and tracking blockers are relevant. Users of mobile devices can save real money in that they pay less for data usage. The battery life of their devices will also noticeably increase due to penetrating ads consuming valuable device resources.
Users of desktop devices may be less concerned about these factors, but ad and tracking blocking also serves a basic form of protection for computers. The best way to not click on a malicious advertisement that will infect your computer with malware is to pevent that advertisement from being displayed in the first place. Such a simple defense mechanism is really a no-brainer!
Last, but not least important, are the aesthetic aspects of ad and tracking blocking. The internet is far less cluttered as not every available space is filled with ads trying to lure you into clicking on them and distracting you from the real content of the website you are actually interested in. Plus websites will load much more quickly without the addition advertising and tracking baggage that also has to be downloaded.
Advertisers and online companies have created such a miserable experience for their users that they are now fighting back. Ad and tracking blockers have become their weapon of choice and as such are a vital piece of the internet ecosystem. They will continue to increase in importance over the next few years as websites try to wrestle control back from the user in order to track their personal data and squeeze as much profit out of them as possible.
A Short List of Ad and Tracking Blockers
I have compiled a short list of popular ad and tracking blockers for browsers. They are all browser extensions and support most of the major browsers:
AdBlock Plus (when using this one, see: Here’s how to block ‘whitelist’ ads from AdBlock Plus!)