Saturday, November 28, 2015

Better Living through Tracking Protection

There's been a bit of a hullabaloo in the press recently about blocking of ads in web browsers. Very little of the conversation is new, but the most recent round of discussion has been somewhat louder and more excited, in part because of Apple's recent decision to allow web content blockers on the iPhone and iPad.

In this latest round of salvos, the online ad industry has taken a pretty brutal beating, and key players appear to be rethinking long-entrenched strategies. Even the Interactive Advertising Bureau -- who has referred to ad blocking as "robbery" and "an extortionist scheme" -- has gone on record to admit that the Internet ads got so bad that users basically had no choice but to start blocking them.

So maybe things will get better in the coming months and years, as online advertisers learn to moderate their behavior. Past behavior shows a spotty track record in this area, though, and change will come slowly. In the meanwhile, there are some pretty good tools that can help you take back control of your web experience.

How We Got Here

While we probably all remember the nadir of online advertising -- banners exhorting users to "punch the monkey to win $50", epilepsy-inducing ads for online gambling, and out-of-control popup ads for X10 cameras -- the truth is that most ad networks have already pulled back from the most obvious abuses of users' eyeballs. It would appear that annoying users into spending money isn't a winning strategy.

Unfortunately, the move away from hyperkinetic ads to more subtle ones was not a retreat as much as a carefully calculated refinement. Ads nowadays are served by colossal ad networks with tendrils on every site -- and they're accompanied by pretty sophisticated code designed to track you around the web.

The thought process that went into this is: if we can track you enough, we learn a lot about who you are and what your interests are. This is driven by the premise that people will be less annoyed by ads that actually fit their interests; and, at the same time, such ads are far more likely to convert into a sale.

Matching relevant ads to users was a reasonable goal. It should have been a win-win for both advertisers and consumers, as long as two key conditions were met: (1) the resulting system didn't otherwise ruin the web browsing experience, and (2) users who don't want to have their personal movements across the web could tell advertisers not to track them, and have those requests honored.

Neither is true.

Tracking Goes off the Rails

Just like advertisers went overboard with animated ads, pop-ups, pop-unders, noise-makers, interstitials, and all the other overtly offensive behavior, they've gone overboard with tracking.

You hear stories of overreach all the time: just last night, I had a friend recount how she got an email (via Gmail) from a friend that mentioned front-loaders, and had to suffer through weeks of banner ads for construction equipment on unrelated sites. The phenomenon is so bad and so well-known, even The Onion is making fun of it.

Beyond the "creepy" factor of having ad agencies building a huge personal profile for you and following you around the web to use it, user-tracking code itself has become so bloated as to ruin the entire web experience.

In fact, on popular sites such as CNN, code to track users can account for somewhere on the order of three times as much memory usage as the actual page content: a recent demo of the Firefox memory tracking tool found that 30 MB of the 40 MB used to render a news article on CNN was consumed by code whose sole purpose was user tracking.

This drags your browsing experience to a crawl.

Ad Networks Know Who Doesn't Want to be Tracked, But Don't Care.

Under the assumption that advertisers were actually willing to honor user choice, there has been a large effort to develop and standardize a way for users to indicate to ad networks that they didn't want to be tracked. It's been implemented by all major browsers, and endorsed by the FTC.

For this system to work, though, advertisers need to play ball: they need to honor user requests not to be tracked. As it turns out, advertisers aren't actually interested in honoring users' wishes; as before, they see a tiny sliver of utility in abusing web users with the misguided notion that this somehow translates into profits. Attempts to legislate conformance were made several years ago, but these never really got very far.

So what can you do? The balance of power seems so far out of whack that consumers have little choice than to sit back and take it.

You could, of course, run one of any number of ad blockers -- Adblock Plus is quite popular -- but this is a somewhat nuclear option. You're throwing out the slim selection of good players with the bad ones; and, let's face it, someone's gotta provide money to keep the lights on at your favorite website.

Even worse, many ad blockers employ techniques that consume as much (or more) memory and as much (or more) time as the trackers they're blocking -- and Adblock Plus is one of the worst offenders. They'll stop you from seeing the ads, but at the expense of slowing down everything you do on the web.

What you can do

When people ask me how to fix this, I recommend a set of three tools to make their browsing experience better: Firefox Tracking Protection, Ghostery, and (optionally) Privacy Badger. (While I'm focusing on Firefox here, it's worth noting that both Ghostery and Privacy Badger are also available for Chrome.)

1. Turn on Tracking Protection

Firefox Tracking Protection is automatically activated in recent versions of Firefox whenever you enter "Private Browsing" mode, but you can also manually turn it on to run all the time. If you go to the URL bar and type in "about:config", you'll get into the advanced configuration settings for Firefox (you may have to agree to be careful before it lets you in). Search for a setting called "privacy.trackingprotection.enabled", and then double-click next to it where it says "false" to change it to "true." Once you do that, Tracking Protection will stay on regardless of whether you're in private browsing mode.

Firefox tracking protection uses a curated list of sites that are known to track you and known to ignore the "Do Not Track" setting. Basically, it's a list of known bad actors. And a study of web page load times determined that just turning it on improves page load times by a median of 44%.

2. Install and Configure Ghostery

There's also an add-on that works similar to Tracking Protection, called Ghostery. Install it from, and then go into its configuration (type "about:addons" into your URL bar, and select the "Preferences" button next to Ghostery). Now, scroll down to "blocking options," near the bottom of the page. Under the "Trackers" tab, click on "select all." Then, uncheck the "widgets" category. (Widgets can be used to track you, but they also frequently provide useful functions for a web page: they're a mixed bag, but I find that their utility outweighs their cost).

Ghostery also uses a curated list, but it's far more aggressive in what it considers to be tracking. It also allows you fine-grained control over what you block, and lets you easily whitelist sites, if you find that they're not working quite right with all the potential trackers removed.

Poke around at the other options in there, too. It's really a power-users tracker blocker.

3. Optionally, Install Privacy Badger

Unlike tracking protection and Ghostery, Privacy Badger isn't a curated list of known trackers. Instead, it's a tool that watches what webpages do. When it sees behavior that could be used to track users across multiple sites, it blocks that behavior from ever happening again. So, instead of knowing ahead of time what to block, it learns what to block. In other words, it picks up where the other two tools leave off.

This sounds really good on paper, and does work pretty well in practice. I ran with Privacy Badger turned on for about a month, with mostly good results. Unfortunately, its "learning" can be a bit aggressive, and I found that it broke sites far more frequently than Ghostery. So the trade-off here: if you run Privacy Badger, you'll have much better protection against tracking, but you'll also have to be alert to the kinds of defects that it can introduce, and go turn it off when it interferes with what you're trying to do. Personally, I turned it off a few months ago, and haven't bothered to reactivate it yet; but I'll be checking back periodically to see if they've tuned their algorithms (and their yellow-list) to be more user-friendly.

If you're interested in giving it a spin, you can download Privacy Badger from the website.

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