Privacy and security based blocker browser add-ons: A hands on experience

Editors Note: The Author wrote this piece while they were exploring a blocker for their use. This piece speaks about the various considerations that the author took into account based on their use and how they made a decision on what they might use.

Disclaimer: This is an experiential piece not general advice. While the text might serve as a guide for you to choose a browser plugin we do not recommend this verbatim for everyone. The add-ons one choose varies for each person based on their circumstance. Please do write to us at theteam@thebachchaoproject.org if you would like specific advice or would like to explore what might suit your needs.

There are a lot of adblockers and scriptblockers available to use today. Among these, there are several open source ones for free, that are currently being actively developed. I tried out five highly recommended ones, and judged them on features and ease of use. The purpose was to find an ad blocker that worked well for my personal use. For this post, I ran the extensions on a Firefox browser across a mix of sites, and noted how they responded. I used a mix of sites ranging from videoconferencing to news to social media and entertainment;

1. News: The Hindu, Times of India, Indian Express, Washington Post and Al Jazeera

2. Videoconferencing: Jitsi, Google Meet

3. Entertainment: Youtube, Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar

4. Social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram

1. Adblock Plus (ABP)

Available on: Chrome, Safari, Opera and Firefox

Ease of use: Very easy, no customization needed

By default, right after installing, it starts blocking ads and certain elements that it find malicious or sees as tracking behaviour. However, it maintains a whitelist of acceptable ads, which comply with do not track requests and fall under the criteria specified by the Acceptable Ads committee.

The extension interface is intuitive and easy to use. You can turn off the ad blocking on specific pages if needed, and if a site appears broken. While running the extension, I noticed that ads within videos (on Youtube and Dailymail for example) disappeared, but I still found sponsered ads in Google searches. It is possible to block these ads and also turn off additional tracking and social media tracking, but these are turned off by default. The extension blocks ads on the basis of filter lists that are community maintained. There is an option for user user created filter lists as well.

While visiting news sites, most did not allow me to proceed till I disabled the extension on the page- there didn’t seem to be a workaround for this via the extension alone.

The extension works in several Indian languages as well (via an IndianList filter), but adding too many languages will cause the webpage to load slower.

Final word: By default, blocks almost all ads, but sponsered suggestions do show up in search engines.

2. Disconnect

Available on: Chrome, Safari, Opera and Firefox

Ease of use: Has more content to show in the extension window, but still easy to use. Allows for some customization if needed.

This extension is similar to ABP in how it blocks only those ads it considers privacy-invasive. It also unblock ads that respect user Do Not Track requests. During my use of the extension, I encountered fewer ads, but unlike ABP, there were more frequent in-video ads. There does not seem to be a way to disable this feature, or to block all ads entirely.

While using Disconnect, it is possible to visit news sites without the site asking you to disable extensions.

Disconnect has a very interesting visual feature, where it breaks down where the trackers are from, and what categories they fall under (content tracking being enabled by default). This can be accessed as a list, or as a map. On sites such as newyorker.com, the number of tracking sites go above a hundred for a single webpage. The purpose of showing the trackers is so that users get more control over the individual tracking requests. This is especially useful in case of a broken site.

Currently, there does not seem to be language support, or any attempts at localizing the extension.

Final word: The visualization element sets it apart from the other contenders.

3. NoScript

Available on:Chrome, Firefox, SeaMonkey and Tor Browser

Ease of use: Definately has a steeper learning curve. Allows for a lot of personalization, but needs a little time to get used it.

NoScript is a bit different from the previous extensions in terms of how it works. While Adblock Plus and Disconnect focus on blocking trackers and ads, NoScript pre-emptively blocks scripts, which can sometimes break the page you’re trying to visit. If a site uses JavaScript, Java or plug in executions, it will be disabled until the page or feature is whitelisted (either temporarily or permanently). What this means for functionality is that some sites heavily dependent on plug ins will appear broken, till these scripts are enabled from the extension. Other sites may appear different as well, even if they continue to function similarly. When I tried to run Jitsi Meet, for example, I had to choose to allow plug ins, even if temporarily. On certain news sites, pictures appearing alongside articles did not show up, along with videos.

There is a lot of scope for user customization- one can whitelist trusted sites and control their entire browsing experience. Having said that, NoScript is not an adblocker, and does have the same features Adblock Plusand Disconnect do. It can act as an additional level of security for a power user, but should not be used as an alternative for a tracker blocker or ad blocker.

Currently, there seems to be no language support for NoScript outside of English.

Final word: This extension will break a lot of sites. It’s important to know how to allow scripts and also balance risks at the same time.

4. Privacy Badger (PB)

Available on: Chrome, Edge Opera and Firefox

Ease of use: Ready to use out of the box, and does not need additional customizations for the average user.

Privacy Badger was created to be a single solution to the problem of non consensual trackers. As it was initially set up, PB took a little time to learn- it observed tracker behaviour across different sites, and if it found the same one across three different sites, it would block it. This allowed it to not rely on any one third party list, but instead learn from user experience.

In the latter half of 2020, PB changed this mechanism based on Google Security Disclosures. It turned off ‘local learning’ by default, relying instead on “Badger Sett”, an automated list of tracking domains. This list is not user generated, as is the case with most other similar extensions. Users can turn on local learning again, but theoretically, this can put them at risk of fingerprinting.

PB also has an option to enable preventing WebRTC from leaking IP addresses.

There is an open translation project for PB on Transifex, but so far, there is no localization done for any Indian languages.

Final word: The changes made to the extension in the last year make it rely on a list instead of individual user trackers. This made PB like a lot of other adblocker extensions.

5. uBlock Origin (uBO)

Available on: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Opera and releases of Safari prior to 13

Ease of use: There’s a lot of scope for a power user to made personal lists, or to set rules for the extension to work, but this is not enough to intimidate a curious beginner.

uBlock Origin is not an ad blocker, it is meant to block specific content that is broader than just ads. However, while using it, I found no ads, and no loss of webpage functionality. The extension does not make an exception for the category of ‘Acceptable Ad’, which removes sponsored ad content from Google searches as well. There is a very active reddit community which reports on bugs found, and since the extension is in active development, these are handled quickly.

I ran the extension on Enhanced Easy mode, which keeps most of the default filters and settings and adds a few other settings to further reduce the number of trackers. You can further customise the extension to disable plug ins, similar to what NoScript does.

It is clear that the extension is very powerful, and heavily customizable. Still, this does not make it unapproachable to the casual user. There is a comprehensive wiki on all parts of the extension, with additional reading on how to use it best for a power user.

uBO prides itself on how light it is, and it definately did not slow down my browsing experience. However, there wasn’t a significant difference in the speeds I encountered in these five extensions. Perhaps the difference is more evident on further browsing.

There is translation support for a few Indian languages (including Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu) with translation still in progress for others.

Final word: The extension is very powerful, while still being light on the system itself.