The ongoing cat-and-mouse game of Adblocker vs. Facebook continues. In August, Facebook announced that it would modify its code to prevent ad blocking software from screening out ads on its site — and the community of white hat hackers that support ad blocking did not take that challenge lying down.
Like virus software, ad blockers depend on certain markers to determine what is an ad (or a virus) and what is not. For Facebook, these were pretty well defined and could be used to separate ads from real or “organic” content. They were compiled by groups, so they could be updated and incorporated easily into all sorts of ad blocking programs. One of the largest of these lists is called EasyList.
My favorite ad blocker for years now has been Adblock Plus. One of the reasons I installed it was the insulting nature of many of the ads on Facebook, which usually feature young women saying how they earned $90 an hour working from home. That they’re dressed and posed like women of negotiable virtue didn’t bother me much, but the obvious pitch to men surfing Facebook was kind of offensive (as well as how it treated women).
But having a pristine white band on the right-hand side instead of the constant barrage of ads was wonderful.
In any case, AdBlock Plus uses Easy-List, so it’s important that it find the aforementioned markers. Facebook started removing the markers from its ads, and the battle was on.
But now AdBlock Plus cannot be cleared as completely virtuous. Back in 2011, it instituted what it called an “acceptable ads initiative” that allowed some ads, defined as non-animated and clearly defined as such, to be whitelisted as acceptable.
This was an acceptance of the idea that ads actually paid for “free” things, like Facebook and blocking the screaming, flashing banners, and that would make most people happy. Besides, you could (if you knew about it) go into the setup of AdBlock and disable these “acceptable” ads too.
There was even talk that Facebook was one of the organizations paying the company to list its ads as acceptable, a clear breach of what would normally be considered kosher. But AdBlock was freeware too, so perhaps it sympathized.
Who Tilts the Table?
Facebook also has some extra control, because the ads you see there are all itsads — they’re not developed by other people and inserted as paid pitches, as in many other websites. If you want an ad on Facebook, you pay the site to create it and post it, often by paying well-defined boosts for prime time and attention to who is surfing. Men would get more dating sites and semi-dressed women, etc.
Ping vs. Pong
So the people compiling EasyList started looking for the subtle differences in the internal tags of Facebook ads, and quickly found them. A quick update and AdblockPlus was working fine again.
This has continued for at least three go-rounds in as many days, with hackers analyzing ads for patterns and Facebook removing the tags within a day. Who will win this contest is open to question. On one side is Facebook, with deep pockets to pay programmers to enforce its will, and on the other side is a determined bunch of people worldwide who hate ads and quickly communicate how to spot, and thus block, them.
I’d put my money on the hackers. Zeal is more powerful than money. Or so we hope.
You also have to beware of “ad blockers” that are fake. One, Facebook AdBlock, is known to insert “referral links” that hijack your browser and send you off to the sites that pay it. This is close kin to the “anti-virus” programs that are really Trojans. Like the wooden horse, they are not what they seem; in most cases they create backdoors that make it easier to download and install hijack programs that turn your computer into part of a botnet that is used for unworthy purposes.
The only way to know what is what is to do some searching in the reviews of programs before installing them, going past the “Wow, this works great” ones to those that have some substance on what the program does and how it does it. That, for instance, is where you will find the accusation and the confirmations that Facebook AdBlock is a Trojan.
It should be noted that most of these ad blockers are only for desktops/laptops and not phones, which now count for 70% of ad revenue. Searching for “ad blocking” on Apple’s support site yields only links to its software updates and nothing similar to AdBlock Plus. If you go to http://adblockplus.org, you can find a version that works with Safari, the Apple browser, but there’s nothing there for Chrome mobile, which sucks because Chrome is immensely faster than Safari. There’s really nothing comparable for Android phones, either.
I’ll be watching to see if the Facebook cat or the AdBlock Plus mouse wins the next round, and will let you know.
Cliff Feldwick is owner of Riverside Computing and does PC troubleshooting, data retrieval and network setups — when not busy playing Whack-A-Mole (a personal favorite). He can be reached at 410-880-0171 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Older columns are available online at http://feldwick.com.