Regain control of your mobile browser!
If you are used to Android, or you have just received an Android smartphone (or tablet?) for Christmas, then welcome to the world of advertising, tracking, and lack of privacy.
Think I'm kidding? Prepare to be surprised at how much advertising is embedded in "free" apps. Those adverts are typically served from a central advertising platform (such as "AdMob"), which in conjunction with your phone and a unique ID used by the app, will provide the platform with exactly which apps you use, when, and who/where you are. There isn't much we can do about this, short of "rooting" the phone (breaking into it and making ourselves the superuser). This is a process that carries its own risks, so will not be discussed further. Suffice to say, use the apps you need to use and don't have GPS location on all the time.
It isn't much different on the web, although vastly greater in scale as this affects all systems, not just mobile. Those stupid Facebook "Like" buttons? Those Pinterest "pin it" buttons? They are served up from their respective sites, and in tandem with a cookie, permit the sites to track you as you browse the web. You do not need to be a Facebook user for Facebook to track your activities; and if you are a Facebook user and are signed in, then your activities can be tied to you (as opposed to a cookie representing "a machine").
We can take steps to mitigate this problem on desktop computers. Ad blocking and the like is fairly widespread, as is the ability to block things at IP level by messing with your machine's "hosts" file to cause lookups to, for example, pinterest.com to be resolved as the IP address 127.0.0.1. That address is a local address that means "this machine", so the request would be bounced off the machine itself and would thus have no effect.
On mobile, the situation has always been far far worse.
Advert blocking has apparently made its debut in iOS9. I can't comment on that as I'm still running iOS7 due to not wanting to download a ~5GiB update over treacle-slow ADSL, nor to fritter away a huge chunk of the installed 16GiB memory. I believe that if the OS doubles in size, it ought to offer twice as many useful features. I don't feel that this is the case.
On Android... the generic stock browser has never blocked anything. I recall once seeing an option to block popups, but given the number of things that would open new windows (replacing what I was looking at, very frustrating), I don't believe it ever worked.
I've had advertisers throw half-megabyte .APK files at me (unrequested, and the Android browser will happily download them), remember that all of this comes out of your data plan; or worse, if you are on a pay-as-you-go tariff.
A recent nasty is that I have had advertisers tell me that my phone is infected with <random number> viruses, and then try to charge me for this "service". Thankfully I get a text message from Orange saying:
Don't worry. There is a solution. A pretty comprehensive one, at that.
If your Android device is fairly recent (has a good amount of grunt), then Firefox has you covered. It renders nicely, it is only marginally slower than the generic browser, but the big benefit is that you can install Ghostery.
Ghostery is a comprehensive blocker. Adverts, trackers, social widgets, the lot. You can block 'em all. And suddenly something quite astonishing happens. Firefox is slower than the default browser, and using a blocker will make it slower still. But on the flip side you are looking at the content you want to look at and not dozens of scripts and rubbish pulled in from third party sites, so the end result is a safer, faster, slicker, and in every way better mobile internet experience.
Once Firefox has been installed, tap on the three dots at the upper right. Tap on Tools, and then in the smaller menu that appears, tap on Add-ons.
Install the following:
- QuitNow - adds a "Quit" option to the menu, to properly quit the browser instead of Android's usual "push to the back somewhere" method.
- Smart Referer - to send referrer information only on the same domain (except for those on a whitelist, which may need the information in order to function correctly).
- Ghostery - to take back control of what runs when.
There are other things that may be of interest, but the three above are the important additions.
Ghostery puts access to its options on the main Firefox menu, so tap the three-dot thingy and then choose Ghostery Options.
In the General tab, enable or disable Ghostrank as you see fit. I run it disabled.
Allow the tracker library automatic updates.
Below is a three-tab insert marked "Trackers", "Cookies", and "Whitelisted Sites".
In Trackers, tap on "Select all".
In Cookies, tap on "Select all".
In Whitelisted Sites, you may need to enter the URL of your ADSL box if you do any management functions from your mobile device. I have added my Livebox as 192.168.1.1 to allow it to run unhindered.
Tap on Save.
Go back up and choose the Advanced tab. You can choose to ignore "first party" trackers, if you wish. I have, as some download sites won't work without it. Choose also to block new elements in the auto update by default. Don't bother with being notified of this, that it will block it is sufficient.
Replace blocked content with a "click to play" is a useful option, so it will behave like NoScript in that stuff is blocked, but can be accessible on your request.
Absolutely replace "social buttons".
Down a ways are Performance options. Select 'em all.
While we are here, Firefox Settings, then Customise, and ensure Download updates automatically is set to Never. It is better to update when you choose to, plus using something such as ES File Explorer, you can save the package file as a backup in case you should want to revert.
Settings, Display, then ensure Allow autoplay is not ticked. I think Ghostery will block most of this, but it won't hurt to disable something that is extremely annoying on the desktop.
Also set Plugins to be Tap to play. Same thing here.
Now into the Privacy menu and ensure Do not track is ticked. For whatever good that might do. Also ensure that cookies are Enabled, excluding 3rd party.
Now go into the Mozilla options and ensure all of the four data choices are unticked. Let others submit details of this hardware, location, and crash reports to Mozilla.
Here is a page as seen in Firefox with Ghostery:
The little ghost icon on the lower right shows that it is blocking eight things. I'm not sure what the red square background is for - maybe it is for a mixture of HTTP and HTTPS? I don't know.
If you tap on the ghost icon, it will show you what has been blocked (and why):
You can tap the little red button to the right of each entry to selectively allow certain things for that site. Here, I am allowing Gravatar on the RISC OS forums so people's little icons appear:
You'll also see spaces where adverts should be, and embedded stuff like "Like" buttons and discussion things replaced, like that shown here:
Give it a try. I think you will find, in short order, that you'll remove the standard browser (or Chrome, depending on your carrier's default setup) from your homescreen and replace it with Firefox. No longer is your time and money going to be wasted on advertising that you don't want, trackers that you wouldn't want if you knew they were there, and most of all, no longer do you have to put up with this sort of rubbish:
The eternal discussion of us thieving freetards
People who believe in advertising will tell you that they believe in a "free internet" and that those adverts "pay their salary" and all sorts of other hardbegotten stories.
I don't care.
Seriously. I might, if I try really hard, manage to muster a vague shrug, at most.
I'm not evil. It comes down to a basic recognition of a flawed premise.
Firstly, by placing advertising on a site - and I note that those who complain usually have a lot of advertising and trackers on their sites - the author/webmaster is very much mistaken if they think that they believe in a free internet. Their very speech, all this "it is how I get paid" means that they perceive their site, or the content that they create, in terms of money. They expect to "monetise" their creations. Now, of course, they could stick it behind a paywall, but many sites that have tried paywalling their content have seen their readership levels plummet. Simple fact one - we're all freetards, because simple fact two - there are few things important enough to justify paying for what you can get for free elsewhere. A few months ago, The Sun (British gutter press of the Murdoch flavour) abandoned its paywall because there is nothing The Sun offers that you can't find from the likes of The Daily Fail or The Grauniad.
Secondly, by placing advertising on a site - and by this I don't mean an AdWord or two or a single Google advert, I mean linking in half a dozen (or more) sites, the content author is not only wilfully impinging upon our rights and privacy (remember what I said about that stupid Facebook button tracking everybody?), s/he is also damaging access to their own site as it will take comparatively longer to load in all that rubbish, and s/he is expecting us to be perfectly happy to run unknown scripts and unknown content from unknown sources. Do they think we were born yesterday?
Thirdly, the browser makers came up with a "Do Not Track" scheme, and a variety of cookies to "opt out" of advertising based upon tracking and preferences. Note, this is opt out. Not only that, but when one of the browsers (MSIE, I think?) decided to do something useful and switch it on as standard, the advertising industry threw its collective arms in the air in mock horror and decided that the only suitable response is to ignore the request not to be tracked.
Browsers still have this option, I'm not sure if anybody pays attention. Not only that, but the whole idea of setting a cookie to opt out of something that you might not know exists is rancid.
So, with that in mind, if this is the level of respect that on-line advertisers have for us, then I do not see it as anything other than common sense to actively block these contagions.
This, this disrespectful and in-your-face method of pushing everything from what you've just bought (hello Amazon) to knock-off Canadian Viagara, this is how these great loving caring wonderful content creators think they get paid. That's about as ridiculous a premise as saying "hey, Bonnie and Clyde only wanted to get paid for their efforts, there's nothing wrong with that, right?".
Look at the first picture at the top of the page. A service that I didn't request, linked to an advertiser on a site I visited, tried to extract some sort of payment from me. I have already mentioned having APK files pushed to me. Well, this comes out of my data allowance. I pay for that. In order to get the author's salary paid (allegedly), they willingly permit advertisers to steal more from us than we'd likely have ever wanted to pay them for their precious precious content.
Just as a test, I visited animelyrics.com. A pop-up window told me I had a bunch of viruses. A page at moietymedia.com offered an anti-virus package called "360 Security" on Google Play. There was another pop-up but nothing appeared (broken?). Well, I've just installed the mobile Avast! and... nothing found. As expected, programs that want weird permissions simply don't get installed. Avast now uninstalled, it's job done.
What was I looking for? I don't remember. Why? Because the pop-up window wasn't a pop-up. It actually replaced the animelyrics.com site with its unwanted rubbish. Is that really what animelyrics wanted? For their site to be replaced by one of their oh-so-special adverts?
I remember. The lyrics to Bravely You (Charlotte theme). Found it on a much nicer site - lyrical-nonsense.com. Sorry animelyrics, you screwed yourselves. But, hey, have a slow handclap from me.
Authors will talk about us stealing from them, as if that is the only thing that matters. Well, to them it does. To us, it does not. Advertising is an increasingly common vector of malware, it is increasingly malicious in its behaviour, and it makes a lot of sense to restrict that which runs on your machines.
If this is really "how the author gets paid", I strongly recommend that they find alternative employment. To expect us, the visitors, to compromise our privacy and security just to read their offerings is nothing short of arrogant.
They will threaten you. They will say that if everybody takes steps to nobble advertising, all the good content will go behind paywalls.
Go for it. Be my guest.
Seriously - I invite these authors to paywall their content.
But they won't. How do I know this? Because those obsessed with monetising their content will already have evaluated this option and come to the same conclusion that practically everybody else has arrived at - by and large, paywalls don't work. Who makes cash out of paywalls? The porn industry. That's who. There are plenty of lonely people willing to pay to download videos of thirty year old "schoolgirls" rolling around in mud, nurses showering each other (while still dressed), office woman snogging each other (and more), incontinence, and pretty much anything else that one could apply Rule 34 to. That's what will be making money behind paywalls.
Joe Average Blogger? No. You don't get well known and "cultivate readership" by hiding behind a tin begging bowl that has a padlock attached. Or maybe these self-important authors failed to realise that Dilbert is available online, and XKCD is not only available, the cartoons are licensed Creative Commons so we can use them too.
One of the funniest I came across is a blog ranting about advert blocking that said that blocking scripting hurt their bottom line (ORLY?) by preventing hit counters from giving them an accurate picture of who visits their page. Obviously these are people too stupid to know where to find the Apache log, or maybe to insert a tiny bit of PHP in the top of the page to record when it is fetched. No. Nothing like that, they'll instead rely upon a stupid third-party counter graphic. As a service to that site owner, I looked in the mess of scripting to find where the call to the counter was and loaded that URL into my desktop browser. I then positioned an AA size battery on the F5 (refresh) key, and went off to make a cup of tea. By the time I came back, the number was a few hundred larger than before. There you go, mister whining author, that'll make up for everybody that visited today with scripting turned off on your site.
Their final words can be summed up as follows: users enjoying our hard-created content, without creating revenue
They are complaining that they are making content freely available and are getting shirty when we choose to be selective about the parts we want to see. They complain that we are being selective to disadvantage them, while being permissive directly disadvantages us. Perhaps I should put it another way. Did you ever pick up a freebie local paper? Maybe something like the French/Japanese "OVNI" or the British "The Big Issue"? A handout from a church? A local town business committee "this is why our town rocks" paper? It has stuff to read in it. Almost invariably it has advertising in it. Do you actually ever pay attention to the advertising? If you choose to disregard it, would you expect somebody to come and tell you off? To force you to sit there and read it? Or, worse, to force you to wet yourself because how dare you get up and go for a pee while the adverts are on the telly? You must sit through every single DFS sale and nonsensical meerkat advert.
No. Just, no. WE choose what we want to watch. WE choose what we want to look at. Adding the words "...with a computer!" might be enough for the American Patent Office, but it isn't enough for US. WE choose what to read, pay attention to, follow, and like. My choice is simple. Nothing is permitted unless I specifically request it. If I request content from meh.org, I don't expect additional content from a dozen other sites to be included as well. If they want to include it, fair enough. It is their choice to do so. Just as it is mine to say "no thanks" and stifle it.
Oh, and I do get that service provision, and computers and such need to be paid for. But let me ask you a question - how is this different to any other "hobby"? Isn't this a cost that ought to be factored in? I mean, I don't expect you to pay for my nearly 70 euros a month Orange bill. I don't expect you to buy me the drone I take pictures with. I don't expect you to pay me the SMIC (minimum wage) because I sit here writing this rubbish.
As a business... if a business thinks it survives only on revenue from embedded advertising, I'd say that was a business in trouble. You know, people actually make money on Linux. How is this possible when you can download the entire thing for free? Simple. They sell services. Documentation. That sort of thing. Maybe, perhaps, websites that think they are a business might want to actually sell something as opposed to plaguing themselves with unwanted advertising (often from unknown sources) and thinking that will suffice as a way of generating income.
You will notice there is practically no advertising on heyrick. I write because I like to do so. Not because I think it is a quick way to $$$.
From time to time I include Amazon (.co.uk / .fr) links to books and such that I like. I guess if enough of you buy from my link they might send me some cash. I'm still waiting for one person to buy, so don't think this is making me lots of moolah.
You will also notice my own little begging bowl to the right (desktop view) or down below (mobile view). But strangely enough, this "Donate to hosting" thing doesn't go to me. It goes to Robert, who hosts my website. I figure if you come across something here you think is good and are feeling charitable, then it is better to send some pounds in his direction.
There is also a link to the Japanese Red Cross. I keep this link because while the world has moved on to more recent disasters, such as the massive immigration into Europe from Africa in recent times, a new problem today doesn't mean that the older problems cease to exist.
Donate to my hosting. Donate to Japan. Or donate to your local Red Cross if you think local issues are more important.
All of that is more useful to the world than donating directly to me. And all of that is more useful to the world than stuffing my site with adverts and trackers and god knows what else.
I guess, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, and all clichés exercised, it comes down to a matter of ethics. I have a job. It doesn't pay much but it pays the bills. I don't need to augment my income by compromising my site. Compromising my integrity. Compromising my security, and yours. I do this out of choice, not as a career move. But most of all, I respect you as a reader, and know that the quickest way to make you forget this site ever existed is to foist a lot of rubbish on to you. Animelyrics? Could have been useful. It will now be remembered as a site to avoid. A simple Google search pointed me at a better site. You see?
So, go on. Go install Firefox and Ghostery and then come back here and see what the little blue ghost says...
...then go browse the internet and realise that it can be clean and fast on a mobile device with erratic data rates and all the other joys of using the GSM network. Trust me. You'll be putting Firefox on the quick link bar before the day is done.
Duh! (added 5.30pm)
I don't tend to answer phone calls from numbers I don't know. I take the opinion that if a call I'm not expecting is important, they'll leave a message. And if they don't leave a message? They can write, or it wasn't important.
The Livephone beside me flashed up that an 01 number (Ile-de-France, or Paris) was calling. I duly ignored it.
It called again.
On the third time I answered it. A bloke shouting "Âllo? Âllo?". Eventually we synchronised (meaning he shut up long enough to hear me reply) and I told him that he was calling a house in Brittany, not the pharmacie he wanted.
He hung up.
And called back.
He couldn't understand it. He tried to phone the pharmacy and got connected to a number in England.
I told him I was an anglais, but was living in France, read out our phone number and said it very definitely was not a pharmacy.
In the time it has taken to write this, he hasn't called back.
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Last read at 00:16 on 2023/11/29.
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