Ad blockers, or you’ll sometimes hear them called content blockers 1, are programs that prevent your computer from downloading ads. They’re kind of like parental controls, anti-virus software, and email spam filters.
Once you’ve started using an ad blocker, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Blocking ads will reduce your risk of being defrauded or getting a computer virus, and make your computer run faster than when it was new.
Google has run ads, for months at a time, pretending to be from the government. And even when they receive complaints, it’s hard to get them to act.
YouTube has run ads that included scripts2 that earn the advertisers cryptocurrency by burning visitors’ battery power on “mining” algorithms. You don’t even have to click the ad for it to run.
Researchers have proven that Facebook’s checks for whether a company is a trustworthy advertiser are not very good. They can make a company look like it has an established, expensive-to-burn identity without actually spending that much money or doing that much work.
In one incident, many major news websites hosted ads that linked to ransomware, programs that, if you followed the ad and installed it, would encrypt everything on your computer and demand money to restore it.
And these aren’t isolated incidents either. While one advertiser pretends to be the government, another one claims to be Amazon, another claims to be from Microsoft, and another one claims to be a cryptocurrency exchange.
Wired.com was hit with an ad that took over the entire page, TV Tropes has a public record of hundreds of ads that have broken their website, and BidFilter (an ad tech company) has a report on how one worked.
According to Symantec (page 27), over half of the web sites that they tested had malicious advertisements.
Ad blockers do not block all advertising. That would be impossible. Something is an advertisement if it was written with an intent to sell something, and ad blockers can’t know what the intent behind any arbitrary web page is.
And even if the author of a block list knows that something is an ad, they won’t necessarily block it. The most popular ad blocking list on the internet, EasyList, uses a much more narrow definition of an “advert” than the dictionary does: they only block ads that are sold to a third party.
Mostly, ad blockers will block something if it is sent through an ad network.
An ad network is a company that matches up ads with websites. It’s kind of like online dating: the web sites and advertisers use keywords to identify the interests that they cater to, and the ad network is the matchmaker that puts them together 3.
And all of the downsides of online dating apply to ad networking. The author of the content might be perfectly trustworthy, but if their website is matched with a bad advertiser, the result is a really bad date. And because ad networks are so permissive, nobody knows if it’s going to turn out well until it’s already too late.
Ad blockers will definitely not block advertisements that are completely integrated with the content that you wanted to open, but when that sort of thing happens, it means that the author of the content knew about what they were advertising, instead of just having a banner ad automatically stuck to their page. Figuring out if you can trust the author of the web page that you opened is something you had to do anyway.
This is the one we recommend, because it’s very powerful, and it includes tools for dealing with web sites that try to prevent ad blockers from working. It’s also easy to install, since it’s just a browser add-on.
Since uBlock Origin doesn’t work in the current version of Safari, I recommend this one instead. You can install it on a Mac, iPhone, or iPad. It can block ads out-of-the-box, but additional functionality requires you to pay for it.
Better has only the paid option, but it’s cheaper than 1Blocker’s. It also maintains its own optimized blocklist, with tools for dealing with sites that try to prevent ad blockers from working and a “most bang for your buck” approach to blocking rules.
This one is the best option if you have lots of computers. You install Pi-hole on your network, reconfigure a router setting, and every device in your home or small office will have its ads blocked.
Google Chrome ships with a list that blocks ads that are discovered to not meet the Better Ads Standards. While I applaud any attempt to penalize ads that cover up content or play sound, this doesn’t seem to have done much about fraud or malware ads.
Google already tries to enforce ad standards; they run the biggest ad network on the internet, and by the time they get around to removing bad ads, the ad has already done damage and the bad actors have already moved onto another cheap and burnable shell company. Their ad blocker doesn’t affect any of this.
A real ad blocker, like uBlock Origin, 1Blocker, or PiHole, blocks the entire ad network. Blocking all of the bad advertisements one by one is an impossible task, but blocking all of the major ad networks is easy, because there aren’t very many of them.
No. What they block is cross-site tracking, which is awesome, but doesn’t actually have anything to do with bad advertisements. Privacy is a common argument made in favor of ad blocking, and they’re right: ad networks regularly and blatantly violate web visitors’ privacy.
But even if major ad networks completely abandoned behavioural tracking, it won’t fix how garbage they are, even by advertising standards. One of the more infamous television ads — the repetitive “Head-On: Apply Directly to Forehead” spot — was made in response to an mandate requiring them to stop pretending to be medicine. Television and Print ads are subject to extensive, and actually enforced, regulation.
The ads sold by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Microsoft are a lot less like those, and a lot more like the telephone call that claims to be from your bank without actually saying what bank that is. Or the contents of your spam folder. For your own health and safety, you have to ignore them. And at that point, there is little reason to download them at all.