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Six browser plug-ins that protect your privacy

Rick Broida | Oct. 20, 2014
Want to avoid ads and keep your Web wanderings private? One of these six browser apps could do the trick.

It's no stretch to say that ads are what make the Web go 'round. The content you're reading right now? Paid for by ads. Google, Facebook, Pandora, YouTube? Driven by ads. This is not a new concept: TV and radio have relied on commercials since their earliest days. Because, let's face it, something has to pay for all the free programming and services.

Of course, there are ways that users can quell the seemingly endless stream of buttons, banners, video interstitials and more. All you need is an ad blocker: a browser plug-in designed to filter out those unwanted distractions and interruptions.

For many users, though, there's another concern that is more important than simple annoyance: privacy. Some sites do more than just plaster their content with digital billboards. They log your visits (usually via IP addresses) and even track your movements to other destinations. Although the driving motivator is usually just broad-based data-gathering, it can be unsettling to realize you're being followed online.

In response, some plug-ins go beyond mere filtering, promising full-on privacy protection against cookies, trackers, third-party scripts and widgets, and other unwanted invasions.

In this roundup I chose six products: AdBlock, Adblock Plus, Disconnect, DoNotTrackMe, Ghostery and Privacy Badger. There are dozens of other, similar, tools, but these represent a good cross-section of what's available. They're also among the most popular picks in the Chrome and Firefox extensions libraries.

While a few of these plug-ins have companion apps designed to extend protection to mobile devices, for purposes of this roundup I focused on desktop browsers. I concentrated on two browsers, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome, which have a combined market share of nearly 80%, according to Netmarketshare.

I installed one plug-in at a time, then visited a wide range of sites — including, but not limited to, Crackle, Facebook, Giveaway of the Day, Huffington Post, Hulu, TMZ, Tucows Downloads and YouTube. These sites represent both mainstream and lesser-known destinations — some notoriously ad-heavy, others focused expressly on video or downloads. Certainly different sites will be affected differently by different ad-blockers, but overall I got a good picture of what day-to-day browsing looks like with each one.

I looked at these sites with each plug-in toggled on, then again with it toggled off. The idea was to make sure none of them were overzealous in filtering, messing with either the content or page layout.

What about speed? In theory, ad blockers and privacy filters should make pages appear faster, as they cut down the amount of content that needs to load. However, this can be difficult to gauge in real-world testing, as there are so many variables that determine how quickly a Web page appears. And if the difference boils down to just a half-second or so, does that really matter? In any case, I looked for any major anomalies, such as pages that were especially fast or especially slow with or without a particular plug-in running.

 

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