ExplainersPrivacy Tools

What Is A Tracker Blocker? (AKA: Content Blocker)

When you view a web page or download any content from apps, you’re not always getting back or seeing one single type of content from one single source. Often, what’s being pulled from browsers and apps is a combination of multiple components from many different sources. 

For example, most news or news-like web pages have editorial content from the publisher, sports or weather that may come from a different source, ads that come from one or more companies, third-party login systems, social media plug-ins, a third-party comment component, analytics from Google or some other provider, and perhaps many other elements. 

It’s not unusual for one web page to call on 50 or even a 100+ different servers and sources to build a single page in your browser. As soon as you click a link to see a certain page, your computer sends and receives all kinds of data interacting with many different companies, most of which you didn’t expect, most of which are invisible, many of which are actively looking to take advantage of or even harm you.

It’s as if you invited a friend over for dinner and they showed up with a few dozen of their most troublesome friends who proceeded to trash your place. Tracker blockers (which Apple calls Content Blockers) are the bouncers at this unplanned party. They serve as a gatekeeper, letting the good content and code onto your device but stopping the bad and the questionable.

When bad elements are blocked with a tracker blocker, you benefit in two ways. The websites you visit are; 

  • Faster. Web pages and content loads faster because you don’t download video ads, trackers, and other similar components you don’t need (often 50% to 300% faster). If you pay for bandwidth, this can save you money too.
  • Safer. Your personal data and habits are less exposed because trackers are stopped from gathering data about you, leaving behind cookies, or using other techniques to figure out who you are and subsequently tell advertisers what you’re doing.

What’s the Catch?

If tracker blockers make the internet faster and safer, why doesn’t everyone use them? 

Everyone should use them, but there are two important flaws that are part of the reason why everyone doesn’t.

  • They’re a little complex. Choosing, installing, and managing tracker blockers can get complicated. Some people aren’t aware of them or just can’t (or don’t want to) handle the extra effort or complexity. 
  • They may affect your browsing negatively. Tracker blockers can accidentally stop good content instead of only bad content, stopping apps or web pages from behaving as expected, which can be frustrating.

For most people, both of these problems are ultimately very minor, especially compared to the upsides, and there are ways to avoid or manage them. 

Choosing Between Tracker Blockers

It’s important to understand that there are *many* different kinds and brands of tracker blockers. Some are very basic, quite easy to install and use, and very rarely or never unexpectedly break web pages or apps. The DuckDuckGo tracker blocking extension – a separate product from their search engine – is an example of a very effective and easy to use tracker blocker.

The trade off is that these ‘easy and safe’ tracker blockers tend to be slightly less effective than those that require a bit more management or might occasionally interfere with legitimate web pages or apps. 

Other tracker blockers are better suited to intermediate or advanced tech skills. They offer more options, sometimes require more interaction while you use them, and as a result of their additional blocking capabilities, they can end up conflicting with more pages more often. But they tend to block more risky or problematic code and content and so many people who want more privacy and security find them worth the extra effort. 

To learn more about choosing between tracker blockers and get recommendations based on your privacy profile, check out our article here.

Are Tracker Blockers Necessary?

Yes. You’ve probably heard stories of single web pages having 100+ third party trackers. These web pages are many times larger than they need to be, all because of tracking code. All of this tracking technology is used to build profiles, target you with ads, manipulate your opinions, and profile you in ways that impact your life online and offline without your knowledge. 

When you install a tracker blocker, you’ll quickly find that tens of thousands of attempts to gather data about you are being stopped every week. If you want to protect your privacy, particularly from surveillance capitalism such as ad tracking and price discrimination, personal issues such as embarrassment, harrassment, or even oppression from your activity becoming public then blocking hostile and potentially dangerous code from running on your devices is very important.

A screenshot from the Brave browser tallying how many trackers and ads have been blocked throughout a users’ time on the browser.

What You’ll Block With a Tracker Blocker

The name ‘trackers’ is a catch all for hundreds of kinds of code used to perform some task that is not required by the core web page or app. 

When using more advanced blockers, you can often specify which kinds of trackers you want to block and which kinds you wish to allow. Not everyone has the same risks or aversions to the same types of trackers, and for some, the inconvenience of blocking certain types is higher than it is for others. Here are some of the more common blocker classifications:

  • Trackers – These generally refer to data gatherers of some type, that exist solely to collect information about you, your system, or your behaviors.
  • Ads – Many ads, probably most, are loaded with trackers to the degree that the ad and the tracking software cannot be separated. If you don’t mind ads per se, it’s still recommended you block all ads that are bundled with tracking code.
  • Comments – The ability to leave or read comments is a feature that often includes deep tracking functionality far beyond what you would expect and should probably tolerate. 
  • Social – Social media sites have “like” buttons and log in systems and are more integrated into pages and apps all over the internet, which may serve to integrate some social features but largely exist to track and report back on everywhere you go and everything you do. Many even track people who don’t belong to the social network itself.
  • Adult – Adult sites and content and ads are notoriously aggressive in their tracking technology and techniques.
  • Privacy – Another label often used for trackers which exist only to gather data.
  • Security – Some of the dangerous code bundled with your web pages or apps might allow remote users to do more than gather data—they may even plant programs, operate hardware, or remotely control parts of your devices.
  • Whitelisted items – These are good guys, or sites and apps that you want to allow to run without any blocking. You can usually make these lists yourself or import or subscribe to community-created lists of known good guys. 
  • Blacklists – Similarly, there are many lists of sites or ad networks or domains that have been community identified as dangerous or harmful.

In Summary: Don’t Go Online Without Tracker Blockers Installed

Tracker blockers are as important to being online as seat belts are to being in cars. Without them, it’s just impossible to not be online and not be tracked, put at risk, and generally have your data mistreated.

At minimum, you should have a tracker blocker configured in each of your browsers – although we should note that the newer crop of ‘Privacy Browsers’ like FireFox and Brave include some built-in tracker blockers – and on iOS and MacOS you have a ‘Content Blocker’ configured in your System Settings. It’s also possible, and advisable, to use tracker blockers that work at the network layer as part of a VPN or other privacy/security system.

We’ll review the details of how to choose and use the right tracker blocker in separate articles. But for now, get used to the idea that you always need one (or more) of these protecting you.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Show More
Back to top button