Firefox ad-blocking with uBlock Origin

Another thing I like to have setup in my browsers is ad-blocking.

I don’t really mind advertisements on web pages as my brain is now pretty much programmed to ignore them after 20 years of web browsing (that’s the entire time web adverts have been about I think!). But obtrusive popups and the like I detest.

I also find many sites so clogged full of utter rubbish adverts that the page does not load – the contents not usually worth waiting for anyway but it does take a while for your browser to sort it all out sometimes.

I don’t mind websites making money from adverts but it is now the case that end users/potential customers need some kind of control over them.

And that’s where uBlock origin, a Firefox add-on, is very useful, if not essential.

This add-on could be described as a ‘browser firewall’ but in many users eyes that implies it is complicated to use, gets in the way and/or slows things down – none of those assumptions is true. uBlock Origin is very easy to use, is fast and does not slow web pages down – in fact it speeds them up – and is so unobtrusive you forget it’s there.

uBlock Origin can be added from the Firefox store. Here’s the direct link: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-GB/firefox/addon/ublock-origin/?src=search

Don’t get confused with Ublock which was a previous version which has since been forked by the original developer into uBlock Origin. The add-on is open source and here is the github page: https://github.com/gorhill/uBlock. You may notice that it also works with the Chromium engine – So there is an add-on for Opera as well: https://addons.opera.com/en-gb/extensions/details/ublock/?display=en#main. Or you could add it to Google Chrome if you really want to use that browser (you probably know my feelings on that by now!).

And here’s the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UBlock_Origin

uBlock Origin is simple to install and you can just leave it to do what it does without getting into the detailed settings but those settings and information on what it is doing are all there if you wish to delve in. It adds an icon to the top right of the Firefox browser with the uBlock Origin logo: ublock_origin_icon

Simply put, once installed, if you load a web page you will start seeing numbers appearing over this icon – that’s showing how much crap uBlock origin is blocking. For example simply visiting the wordpress.com web site produces this: ublock_origin_icon_nos. Yep, 66 requests blocked.

You can click on the icon and it will show this by default:

ublock_origin_initial

In fact the number of requests went up to 72 while I was getting that image.

Clicking on the + next to the requests blocked or the domain connected produces an expanded dialog:

ublock_origin_expanded

Up to 79 blocks now!

This interface looks a bit daunting but is really simple to understand and use.

You will see listed the third party domains that the page has requested things from. Green next to the domain indicates items were not blocked, red means all requests were blocked and yellow indicates some requests were blocked.

uBlock origin uses a range of thrid party ad blocking lists to decide what to block and what not to by default.

Notice that you also get the 1st party domain information – in this case wordpress.com which it is not blocking.

In most cases you can continue with the defaults but you can set things to how you want in great detail by using this interface. If you hover your mouse over the columns next to the domains you will notice some green and red boxes appear. So you can choose red to block that domain or green to unblock – the first column denotes settings for this site only, the second column denotes settings globally for all sites you visit.

ublock_origin_expanded_colours

In the above image I am hovering over the facebook.net entry which I can block by selecting red for the wordpress.com site that I am visiting. All these choices are remembered by the add-on.

The plusses and minuses in the second column denote how much is being blocked or not – one plus means between 1 and 9 requests were allowed, 2 pluses between 10 and 100 and three pluses over 100. Minuses denote what is blocked in the the same way.

You can quickly see how you can finely tune your browsing experience but be wary if you are not sure what you are doing. For example blocking fonts.googleapis.com may render the website unusable as it will be using a completely different font to what you expect or blocking facebook.net may mean a widget that the site is using for extra functionality cannot be used.

By far the most useful option is the blue on/off button:

ublock_origin_blue_button

Clicking this will unblock everything for a site. So if you visit a site that you like and support and you want to allow them to track your usage and serve up adverts so that they get revenue just visit the site and hit the blue button. This is whitelisting and you can view a list of the sites you have whitelisted within the uBlock origin settings which can be located at the gear icon in the top left of the dialog: ublock_origin_settings_button

Goto the whitelist tab:

ublock_origin_settings_whitelist

It’s quite fun to test this all out in realtime. You can logon to facebook and see that uBlock origin is now blcoking all the ads in amongst your normal postings, click on the blue icon and refresh and those adverts all come flooding back. (remember to switch blocking back on unless you want facebook to get even more money of course!).

As mentioned because uBlock origin is blocking all this stuff, web pages will load much quicker – this is certainly my experience. I now find that if I am on a machine without uBlock origin installed I really notice how slow some websites are.

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Check your Facebook Advert settings are what you really want

Came across an article recently that showed how Facebook has added a new option to the Adverts settings that allows Facebook to use tracking ads even if you previously opted out using the existing settings:

Facebook1.png

“Ads on apps and websites off of the Facebook Companies” – what legalese there I think. “The Facebook Companies” – looking at the details provides some further information on this: https://www.facebook.com/help/111814505650678:

facebook_companies.png

Love the cute owl – makes you fell all warm and cuddly and safe doesn’t it. Don’t be fooled – having this option set to Yes means Facebook can track you across all their sites/services and probably beyond.

To turn it off simply hit Edit and choose No:

facebook

Thanks to Dave Carol for highlighting this: https://medium.com/@profcarroll/awkward-conversation-with-facebook-ef1734ecdc62#.tipvxac44

BreakthePaywall now available in Google Chrome

BreakthePaywall is now available as a Google Chrome Extension.

Visit the Breakthepaywall home page: http://www.breakthepaywall.com

Or search in the Chrome store for ‘BreakthePaywall’

Or click this direct link: 

https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/breakthepaywall/ddlcmnkkbojfnfclfhbdfkcmhfaebhgc

The Chrome version utilises referer and agent hacks but does not perform any cookie deletion or other storage manipulation. However, this should be enough for most paywall websites.

The Extension adds a simple BTPW button to the Chrome toolbar which you can use to toggle BreakthePaywall on and off. When it’s coloured blue it’s on and grey is off.

How to block LSO’s (Flash cookies)

Traditionally it has been difficult to lock down flash so that locally stored objects (flash cookies) are blocked – LSO’s are not required for flash to work and are purely used for tracking. But, the latest version of Flash has completely changed its privacy system.

It now obeys the browsers settings.

So if you have IE set to delete all content on exit (like I do) the flash cookies will also be deleted.

Good stuff, but this does not prevent flash cookies in the first place – however, you can set flash to block all LSO’s by right clicking, choosing Global Settings and setting block options. This seems to work for all sites I have come across i.e. flash still works and nothing is created.

I assume this change has come about due to the new European privacy laws on cookies coming into force 🙂

Note: if you do not want to block all cookies you still have to use the old method on the Adobe site settings page: http://www.macromedia.com/support/documentation/en/flashplayer/help/settings_manager.html. This is also the only place where you can turn off allowing third party flash cookies – browser settings are not used for this.

Blocking LSOs (Flash Cookies) and the BBC

I wanted to block LSOs (Locally Stored Objects) commonly known as Flash cookies in Internet Explorer – for those of you who don’t know what LSOs are: they are an alternative to cookies as a means of tracking your online usage
(see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Local_Shared_Object).

I used the Adobe settings that they provide by right clicking on a flash image and choosing global settings. Adobe has an unusual way of allowing you to change your settings – rather than the settings menu being within the local flash plugin they send you to an Adobe website location. This seems dodgy in itself but that’s another story and there are other ways of blocking LSOs (see: https://nodpi.org/forum for IE; Use BetterPrivacy plugin for Firefox). Under the Global Storage Settings Panel you can set storage to zero, tick never ask again, untick Allow 3rd party content – this seems to block LSOs from being created (remember to delete your currently stored LSOs under the Peer-Assisted Networking Panel).

However, I did not have any problems viewing flash content until I tried viewing a news article on the BBC website – http://news.bbc.co.uk. The flash video would not run, despite trying to fiddle with the LSO settings the video either failed to start or I got a message that the content could not be displayed. It seemed that the BBC was using a 3rd party provider and that they require 3rd party content access and some storage space otherwise the video will not load.

The BBC website helpdesk was no help at all – did not have a clue what I was on about. Eventually I came across the following article on the BBC forums: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs

This explains why the BBC was the only site I had a problem with. I am still awaiting a resolution to this.

Update October 2010: still no word on when the BBC is going to resolve the problem. I am pressing them for a response.

Update November 2010: The BBC have responded (see: BBC Response. Looks like they’re dragging this on until Spring 2011, if not beyond.

Update July 2011: I had extensive technical discussions with the BBC regarding this issue and was told they would investigate further and get back to me – they were under the impression that no local storage was taking place if you specifically blocked it. They never did get back to me and the posts on the BBC site have now been closed to comments! What I have found is that the new version of Flash has completely changed its privacy system – it now obeys the browsers settings. So if you have IE set to delete all content on exit the flash cookies will also be deleted. Good stuff, but this does not prevent flash cookies in the first place – however, you can set flash to block all LSO’s by right clicking, choosing Global Settings and setting block options. This seems to work for all sites i.e. flash still works. In the case of the BBC site a folder is created under %APPDATA%RoamingMacromediaFlash Player#SharedObjects but nothing is put into it. This folder disappears on exiting browser if you have the browser delete option on. So it has been indirectly resolved by Adobe rather than the BBC.

 

Update October 2011: The flash problem on the BBC news site is back! If you set all flash cookies to be blocked and your flash cache has been cleared the video’s on BBC news site will not work (other videos on BBC site as a whole do work). If you set flash to not block the videos they work and you can then set flash to block again and they still work, but if you have your browser set to delete cookies then the cache will clear on exit and you will have the same problem next time (in other words the BBC news videos require something to be downloaded). Have contacted BBC again and will post any response.