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01/08/2004 Archived Entry: "Pop-ups and cookies and ads, oh my!"

These guys never quit. The latest virus email claims to be from the FBI and accuses you of illegal downloading. Don't open the attachment.

I see that Microsoft's MSN will now -- among other services -- block pop-up ads for a mere $99 extra per year. Perhaps this is why Internet Explorer is the only major browser that doesn't have that feature built in. We've been blocking pop-ups, cookies, and most web advertising for a year, for free. Here's how.

Pop-ups. The ability to open "unrequested windows" (pop-ups) was added to web browsers some years ago, with no suspicion of how the feature would be misused. Any worthwhile web browser -- e.g. Netscape 7, Mozilla, or Opera -- will let you disable this feature.

In Opera 7, look under Preferences/Windows and you'll see a selection for "Pop-ups." You might want to enable requested pop-ups: these are new windows that open when you click on a link (as opposed to windows that open on their own). Some web pages use requested pop-ups to display information. Opera also displays this selection in the Quick Preferences menu.

In Netscape/Mozilla, look under Preferences/Privacy & Security/Popup Windows and select "Block unrequested popup windows." You might also want to visit Preferences/Advanced/Scripts & Plugins and disable the options that allow scripts to move, resize, raise and lower windows...I find such actions frequently annoying and sometimes dysfunctional.

Cookies. A "cookie" is a piece of data that a web server leaves on your computer, that it can read later. For example, a site might store your account name and password and preferences in a cookie, so that the next time you visit the site, it logs you in automatically. Many web sites require the use of cookies, and they're generally safe. Contrary to some rumors, web sites can't use cookies to read your hard drive -- only the one specific file or directory where cookies are kept can be read. But cookies can be used to track your Internet browsing, as the ad agency Doubleclick notoriously began some years ago.

Again, most browsers will let you control cookies. (Even Internet Explorer, I do believe.) Opera 7 gives superb control. Under Preferences/Privacy, you can enable cookies from the web site you're visiting but then block "third-party" cookies (i.e., the ones left by advertisers). As an educational experience, you might try the "display received cookies" option for a day, just so you can see how often they're used. But this gets annoying after a while, so I just accept most cookies.

In Netscape/Mozilla, you have similar options in the Preferences/Privacy & Security/Cookies menu. Instead of "block third-party cookies" the option is "enable cookies for the originating web site only" (same thing). And you can elect to "ask me before storing a cookie" if you're curious.

Advertising. I realize that -- like broadcast TV -- much of the "free" Internet content is paid by advertising. But advertisers, you've only yourselves to blame: web page ads are now so annoying and consume so much of my dial-up bandwidth that I've blocked most of them from my browser.

The technique I use is Proxy Auto Configuration. It blocks a large number of ads, and also blocks many of the tricks that are used by Doubleclick and others to track my Internet browsing. (Cookies are not the only way they do this.) It works with most major browsers (including Internet Explorer), on any operating system.

This technique does require a smidgen of technical expertise, but it's pretty well documented in "cookbook" form. Basically it involves two steps. First, install a list of URLs that get redirected to a "proxy" server (they provide a good starting list). Second, install a dummy proxy server on your computer that returns nothing (or a blank image) for those ads. When a page attemps to load an "advertising-like" image, your local proxy supplies it instead. The result: fewer ads, and less bandwidth spent downloading them.

Supposedly, Netscape 7.1 and Mozilla 1.4 don't require the proxy server. When I learn how this is done, I'll post a follow-up. Meanwhile, I'll be interested to hear of any other free tools & tricks to block web advertising.


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