Software Spotlight: Ad Blockers

A giant flashing seizure inducing graphic that makes your head split.

You visit a site, it instantly knows who you are and where you are and suddenly bombards you with spam and telemarketers.

A hypnotic, smooth scrolling image beckons you to buy something you never would.

An animated girl with big bouncing boobs appears in the middle of your business presentation. Your boss... she is not impressed.

A loud video pops up and starts screaming at you in the middle of taking an on-line test.

As you browse multiple sites, you repeatedly see the same small seemingly innocuous message over and over suggesting that political candidate B is a bad man. You don't consciously think anything about it, but slowly you begin to believe it.

You pull up a common, well known web site in front of your mother, only to be flooded with My Little Pony ads because you searched for that on an unrelated site.

Out of boredom you follow an advertisement for a seemingly legitimate game - but when you install it, it takes over your machine.

Why would anyone not want to protect themselves from this?

Advertising has probably been around as long as the spoken word. But, when caveman Nahg jumped out of a tree in front of caveman Ogg and started babbling about his rock polishing service, he could wind up with caveman Ogg's fist in his face.

"Grunt, ohh, Ogg invent first ad blocker!"

Since then, the world has been littered with advertising. And one can only punch so many people in the face.

Most of the advertising styles we are familiar with evolved from newspapers, radio, magazines, and television. These forms of media often gave their readers/viewers a low or zero upfront cost, and the real money came from advertisers.

To a certain extent this was fair. But newspaper advertisements didn't move around and scream at you (unless you happened to be Harry Potter), magazine advertisements wouldn't infect you, and television advertisements didn't watch YOU.

You were free to cut advertisements out of your newspaper, although if a distributor did that they would get in to trouble.

I seem to recall there was a huge stink by the media companies in the early 1980s about VCR owners removing commercials. There were also some attempts to automate VCR advertisement deletion. But there wasn't much the big companies could do about that.

Computer technology has changed all of this.

I don't recall too many advertisements over terminals or BBSes, although they were there. It wasn't uncommon for games to be based around some advertising gimmick. On-disk magazines usually had a little advertising. The Usenet (a distributed sort of "cloud" based forum) filled up with advertising spam pretty quickly.

It was on-line services such as PC-Link, AOL, or Compuserv with interactive content that really began to attract advertisers.

When the Web became popular, on-line advertising really took off. Suddenly anyone could set up their own web server, and serve up their own content without the control of a proprietary service. More importantly, they could easily embed content from other sites. This enabled advertisers to easily rotate in new advertisements. Since loading any http object from a server can be logged, advertisers could now directly track the number of advertisement views and "clicks". Browser "cookies" let advertisers track users across sites and serve up targeted advertisements.

During the late 1990s, browser vendors were implementing new features willy-nilly with no thought at all to security or abuse.

Advertisers quickly began to abuse pop-up windows, scripting, Active-X (embedded win32 binaries that could do literally anything to your computer), and multimedia plug-ins such Macromedia Flash.

The desire to push computer advertising got so bad, that for a brief time, it was almost standard operating procedure even for reputable vendors to bundle "ad-ware" and "malware" software with their products. Advertisers also exploited browser mis-features and bugs to automatically force installation of similar malware.

Keep in mind, that even just a few years before this, things like browser abuse, tracking, and ad-ware would have been considered illegal and unethical. But as it turned out, current laws didn't cover any of this "on a computer". And advertisers have no ethics.

This gave rise to a new form of software called "ad blockers".

We are familiar with many "free" options today, but originally these were commercial products.

The earliest ad blocker program I know of off hand is a ~1998 program called @Guard or "AtGuard".

@Guard is actually a network firewall program designed for Windows 95/98/NT, and can control and alter network communications on the fly before it even reaches a browser. This way, it was automatically compatible with all browsers, and therefore it could also stop ad-ware (semi-malicious local software) running on the computer.

@Guard also protected privacy by optionally blocking cookies as well as HTTP referrer information. It is completely customizable, enabling users to block individual sites or only allowing designated sites.

As a commercial product, in 1998, @Guard 2.0 cost $29.99.

More information from an InfoWorld magazine is here:

In 2000, Norton Internet Security 2000 offered an ad-blocker based on @Guard.

Other ~2002 commercial ad blockers included:

- Adsubtract Pro, from InterMute. Reportedly it worked with AOL, IE, and Netscape, to blocks pop-ups, cookies, scripts, animated gifs, and flash.

- Filtergate, from ad-Science Ltd

- WebWasher, that included customizable URL rules, script blocking, cookie management, and referrer filtering.

- And McAffe Internet Security, that offered similar customizable ad blocking.

Winworld does not currently have any of these.

This also gave rise to another class of software service: Anonymizers. For example Zero-Knowledge System offered a subscription service called Freedom WebSecure. This was essentially a remote proxy that stripped out advertisements as well as privacy protecting features.

Anti-Virus programs also hopped in to action, detecting and removing "ad-ware" programs from individual computers.

Products such as "Ad-Aware" focused specifically on ad-ware rather than general viruses or malware. Bizarrely, there was some controversy over removing ad-ware, as software vendors felt they were within there legal rights to bundle ad-ware, and felt they could forbid tampering.

Browser vendors such as Mozilla/Netscape and Apple Safari also began to include features that prevented some intrusive forms of advertising, such as those that abused popup windows. The holdout was IE 6, which went for a long time without any development at all.

Over the years, less reputable advertisers or even reputable ones that sell out, have served up malware either directly or indirectly. Thanks to tracking, this can even be targeted. As such, ad blocking and computer security go hand in hand.

Unfortunately, when modern web sites have to have "accessibility" features for things that should be designed in from the start (actual screen capture), you know too many people have just gotten used to visual abuse. Increasingly, modern web sites refuse to serve up content if you are trying to keep your computer, eyes, and mind safe.

In conclusion, Ad blockers have been important products for quite a long time and are worthy of historic preservation.

"Merraaa! Nahg's rock polish only two clam!" [WHAMMM!!!! THUNK.]

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