Testing the uBlock Origin Ad Blocker

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Stephen Rees, 123RF

Stephen Rees, 123RF

Clean Slate

There is hardly a website out there that doesn't have advertisements and trackers. Some sites are practically flooded with them. Ad blockers like uBlock Origin can be used as effective countermeasures.

The advertisement industry likes to spy on Internet users as much as possible. Partly, this is because the industry wants to deliver the most appealing and successful ads possible. At the same time, collecting data that can then be offered for sale is also a goal. It is becoming increasingly difficult for users to extract themselves from these practices. However, innovative developers are up to the task.

Modern web browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome/Chromium have a modular design that makes it easier to use extensions for keeping the system secure from a wide range of online dangers. These extensions are also good at creating a bulwark against spy technologies and intrusive advertising.

Along side the increasingly clever advances in spy technologies, there have been correspondingly greater efforts made to immunize browsers from intrusions by traditional means. There are many different extensions to choose from. Favorites among these include the ad and tracking blockers Adblock Plus [1] and Ghostery [2]. Both of these programs are partly based on filter lists that the community and manufacturers maintain and update constantly.

However, these add-ons come with disadvantages. Ghostery has to be manually installed using a wizard that is both inconvenient and demanding in terms of the required level of prior knowledge. The default settings for Adblock Plus give a free pass to a few "non-intrusive" advertisements. As it turns out, the providers of Adblock Plus are paid by website operators for these ads, which makes the add-on very suspect. Axel Springer, the German publisher, previously sought to counter this practice by bringing a lawsuit.

Moreover, an increasing number of content providers check to see when the website is called up whether the client uses ad blockers. If so, the site refuses to display the contents. Therefore, if you want to view content from websites like these and also have your ad blocker switched on, you will need a browser extension that uses scripts to override the ad blocker. This creates additional configuration work and also noticeably slows down the web browser due to increasing numbers of installed add-ons.

To make matters worse, there are security issues associated with the browser tools themselves. These issues became a matter of note with the data scandal caused by the add-on Web of Trust. Some tools promise increased data privacy but spy on the user instead. At one point, even the Ghostery tool, which was developed by a New York City company of the same name, came under suspicion for collecting user data and selling it to advertisers. However, it is possible to turn off the data transfer feature of the tool by switching off the activated Ghostrank found in the basic setting.

Eyeo GmbH from Cologne, Germany, which maintains and develops Adblock Plus, has also met with criticism for its business model. This add-on has default settings that designate particular advertisements as non-intrusive, so it lets them pass through; however, you can deactivate this option. Basically, it is a good idea to carefully configure any extension before using it in order to avoid these kinds of stumbling blocks.

Sweeping Blow

The program uBlock Origin [3] originated with uBlock [4], which is still maintained by volunteer developers but no longer developed (see the "uBlock – The Original" box). The uBlock Origin project is relatively young to be taking on the task of putting an end to the chaos that exists among the ad and tracking blockers, but it seems that it's going to try.

uBlock – The Original

The original uBlock is still available for various web browsers and has a very similar interface with nearly identical functions. However, during testing, I noticed that the older uBlock needed more memory than the newer version even though each had the same configuration. The same filter lists had been activated in each application, and they were updated at intervals of every few minutes. Nonetheless, uBlock required approximately 26MB of memory, while uBlock Origin made do with 18MB.

You can get uBlock Origin for Firefox or Chrome at their respective sites for add-ons. When installed, the tool places a symbol in the address bar of the browser between the Bookmarks and the Settings menu. With Google Chrome, uBlock Origin also offers a web socket for collecting and filtering alternative data streams. However, once installed, there are no further possibilities for creating settings.

In Firefox, a click on the uBlock symbol opens a small status window in which you open the extension's configuration page by clicking on the version number. The configuration page contains multiple tabs, all arranged horizontally. The tabs allow for precise adjustments of all of the options (Figure 1).

Figure 1: There are extensive settings options in uBlock Origin.

In the Settings tab, you can set some basic options. These include specifications for the home screen's appearance and modifications for the browser's behavior. In the 3rd-party filters tab, to the right of the first tab, you can adjust tool efficiency by integrating suitable filter lists.

Immediately after integrating the lists, you should definitely activate the Auto-update filter lists option by marking the checkbox. Then click on the Update now button to trigger an update. Underneath these options, you will see several groups with various filter lists that can be activated by setting a check mark (Figure 2).

Figure 2: In contrast to a program like Adblock Plus, uBLock Origin has a large selection of filter lists to use for various purposes.

Unlike Adblock Plus, which has only a single selection list for filters, uBlock Origin has lists of domains that distribute malware and sites that spy on user search behavior by means of hidden technologies like pixel counters.

For users who regularly travel to other countries, the extension offers additional filter lists in the Region, languages section. These filters make sure that the advertisements coming from the corresponding foreign countries do not make it into the browser.

Another special feature is the Anti-Adblock-Killer | Reek filter. This is a script that the browser normally executes using the Greasemonkey add-on. The script prevents websites from locking their content when the client making a request is running an ad blocker. Reek also works in uBlock Origin, even if Greasemonkey has not been installed. However, tests showed that it is not effective with certain sites. For example, the sites for Forbes.com and Wired.com granted access, but the site for the German newspaper Suddeutsche.de remained inaccessible.

If needed, you can use the lists under Social to deactivate the "Like" buttons that frequently appear for various social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. These buttons also collect visitor data and record your online behavior.

As soon as you select one of the lists and options, you will need to activate it by clicking on the Apply changes button at the top right of the window. The software will then download the new filter lists from the Internet. This will take some time when there are a lot of activated filters.

For each filter, the extension displays the number of existing entries and their activation status. Clicking on the filter opens its definition as a text file in the browser.

In Your Hands

You can define your own filter rules as desired in the My filter tab. You can also import filters from Adblock Plus, or you can export filters that you have set up yourself. Integrating new entries into the list is accomplished by right-clicking on the element in each website that is supposed to be filtered and selecting Block Element from the pop-up menu.

You will see the browser window go dim. In the lower right, a superimposed window will open with the blocking rules. This window will brighten when you roll over it with the cursor. Add the new filter rules to the window by clicking on the Create option. The blocked element then disappears from the website (Figure 3). Simultaneously, a new entry appears in the list of the filters you have created.

Figure 3: It only takes a few mouse clicks to add your created filters to uBlock Origin.

If needed, you can define more of your own filter rules under My rules . The tool will apply these to websites independently of individual elements. The manual entries necessary here require a certain skill level. Instructions for the command syntax can be found by clicking on the full documentation link.

You can enter hostnames that uBlock Origin should not filter in the Whitelist tab. You can also exchange this data with other applications using the Import and append and Export options that are offered here.

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