OverviewsPrivacy Tools

uBlock Origin – Tracker Blocking Extension (Overview)

Until recently, browser makers didn’t think it part of their job to block trackers or malicious code that was contained in web pages. Most popular browsers now include some level of tracker blocking, but often these built-in blockers – especially in the more popular browsers like Chrome and to a lesser degree Safari and Edge – only stop the most egregious, aggressive, and outwardly malicious trackers. 

In other words, if you want even a minimal amount of privacy, you still need additional protection.

Browser extensions make add-on tracker blockers possible, and uBlock Origin is one of the most powerful and popular among those seeking very high levels of browser privacy and security. It’s an open-source extension that is available for Microsoft Edge, and Google Chrome as well as Chromium-based browsers like FireFox, Brave, and Opera.

uBlock Origin Overview

uBlock Origin is a powerful tracker blocker with granular controls and settings that experts and those who have very specific privacy or blocking needs will appreciate. It does have defaults, and can be used as an ‘install it and forget it’ tracker blocker, but we would probably recommend people looking for something simple use DuckDuckGo, Ghostery, or Disconnect.

One quick thing to note is that uBlock Origin is not the same as uBlock, an adblocker with a similar name. We recommend searching your browser’s extension library in order to install it or just visit their site here.

Features and Benefits

Getting started with uBlock Origin takes almost no time at all. Once you find it in your extension market and install it, it will begin working automatically. Its default protections are based on several lists of trackers, ads, malicious sites, and other elements that may be collecting your data. 

All tracker blockers can cause web pages to fail to load or operate properly, so it’s useful to have a way to quickly disable them. If you ever want to turn off uBlock Origin, simply click the big blue power button and it will stop blocking suspect code and page elements. You will have to reload the current web page to get the full (un-blocked) page. If you want to turn it back on, just hit the button again and reload the page.

uBlock Default View Shown on The New York Times

Page-level site options 

The five icons under the power button are additional page-level options allowing you to block specific classes of elements on a page such as remote fonts, javascript, large media elements, cosmetic filters, and pop-ups. 

Additional options

The four icons immediately above the ‘More’ option at the bottom (as shown in the picture above) lets you block elements on a page, filter elements, see the page log, and access your settings (referred to as the Dashboard by uBlock origin). These are fairly advanced options for the most technical users.

The element zapper (the lightning bolt) will essentially “erase” an element right on the page, giving you complete control of what you’re seeing on a site.

The filter element tool (the eye-dropper) will let you create your own filter for uBlock Origin to use by selecting an element on the site you’re on. Click on an element and the filter is created and held under ‘My Filter’ in your settings/Dashboard.

To see all the network activity happening in your browser, click on the logger. It will take you to a new page and show you the real-time activity. It’s also color-coded so you can see what’s allowed: 

  • not colored if it doesn’t match a filter or rule.
  • green if it was allowed because of a filter or rule.
  • red if it was blocked because of a filter or rule.
  • Yellow if it was blocked by a cosmetic filter or if the element was redirected.

The logger only starts running as soon as you open it – it doesn’t run in the background.

The last button will open the Dashboard, which lets you customize uBlock Origin. We’ll get into that a little later.

Domain level blocking 

Hit the ‘More’ button again, and a table showing the domains that have loaded (or attempted to load) trackers on the web-page you’re currently viewing. You can also click on the space before the URL to look at sub-domains. This makes it possible to block (or allow) these domains for the current page or for all sites viewed through your browser.

Next to each domain there is a + sign if the domain is currently allowed, and a – sign if the domain is currently being blocked. Additional plus signs mean additional network requests were allowed and additional negative signs mean more networks requests were blocked.

By default, this table is read-only, but via the ‘advanced user’ option in your settings you can make this table interactive. In that mode, you can choose to block or allow each element here for the web page itself, or as a global setting. This is the most powerful feature in uBlock Origin.

In interactive mode (shown above), the left column represents a global setting while the right side represents the local page. Setting the element to green (the left side of the column) will allow it, setting it to gray (the middle) will exclude the element from being affected by dynamic filtering (but allows static filtering), and setting it to red (the right side) will block it.

This ability allows you to globally block ad networks, analytics platforms, and other domains that never add any value (for you) to the web pages you visit. Of course, you have to recognize these domains or be willing to investigate them, but for knowledgable or advanced users, this allows you to, over time, build your own full customized tracker blocking layer on top of the default blocking you get via lists.

Once you block or enable any specific domain, three icons will appear on the drop-down, a reload icon (to reload the page), an eraser icon to revert the change that was just made, and a lock icon to make the change permanent.

The uBlock Origin Dashboard

The dashboard is accessed via the ‘sliders’ icon in the main window. It opens a new window in your browser when clicked. This new window contains six tabs – settings, my filters, filter lists, white lists, my rules, about.

Settings is where you can turn on ‘advanced user’ and click-through to see all the advanced settings you’ll have access to. You can also change the default settings for each page but, as always, you can change them on a per-site basis using the drop down.

Additional Filters and Rules

Filter lists are lists of sites and elements that tell a content blocker what to block. We previously mentioned that uBlock Origin uses several lists by default but it also contains additional lists you can turn on so it can block even more content and potentially, more websites. The lists are grouped by the type of element that’s blocked and you can also turn off specific lists.

My Filters allows you to import your own filter lists – either ones you’ve created on your own or any you’ve downloaded from the internet.

My Rules works similarly – you can import your own rules and make them temporary or permanent.

Again, these are advanced settings so we don’t recommend playing with these defaults unless you know what you’re doing or you know exactly what you want blocked and/or filtered.

Whitelisting helps you avoid issues

Whitelisting refers to a process of identifying specific sites and/or pages where you’d like any ad or tracker blocker to stop working. This might be because you want to see ads on a page (to provide monetary support, for example) or because a site isn’t behaving properly or is limiting what you can do or see because of the blocker (many publication sites do this).

Adding a site to a whitelist ensures the blocker doesn’t affect that page any time you visit it. It’s an easy way to prevent the blocker from giving you any issues and it stops you from having to manually turn it off and reload the site every time you land on it.

A properly maintained whitelist helps ensure you’re using an adblocker in the best way possible.

With uBlock Origin, you can import your own whitelist from a file or manually build one on the dashboard itself. One domain is allowed per line and you can revert any change with the click of a button.

The About Tab shows the current version of uBlock Origin and links to helpful documentation and resources.

It’s free with no catch

One of the most attractive features of this content blocker is that it’s free. Because the extension is open sourced and just managed by a few people, there’s no subscription tiers, pro or premium memberships. Everything the content blocker offers is available to anyone for free.

Life with uBlock Origin

We found uBlock Origin to be one of the easiest content blockers to use by default. It starts working as soon as you install it and because it’s designed to balance its blocking with internet usability, you won’t run into issues when viewing sites that often break or specifically stop you from being on the site unless you turn off the ad-blocker (the New York Times and Forbes, for example, worked fine with uBlock Origin on).

It’s also a no-fuss content blocker – as we mentioned earlier – it’s free and you don’t have to create an account or provide your information or anything of the sort to begin using it.

However, we believe this content blocker is best for experts, highly technical individuals, and for those who want more customized controls over their content blocker. uBlock Origin’s options for customization and granular controls is unlike any other content blocker and is what makes it stand out from other content blockers.

While the user experience of leveraging these customization options aren’t the best, no other content blocker will let you build your own filters, rules, and specify the kinds of elements that you want blocked. As you continue to use uBlock Origin and continue to designate which ad sites and tracker domains you want blocked and unblocked, you’ll find yourself continually optimizing your own ad blocker experience, making browsing private and simple.

Why we like uBlock Origin

We recommend uBlock Origin as one of the more powerful and customizable tracker blockers, usable by anyone but particularly for users wanting, needing, and being capable of using advanced features and controls. And a very nice feature is that it’s free.

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

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