Adblockers, tracking blockers and privacy blockers each have a core purpose that is distinctly different, but the lines are blurring as feature sets grow and consumers become more aware of their options.
The internet harbors an unlimited amount of data and is a primary gateway used by businesses to grow relationships with potential customers. Innovations in tracking, ad serving, AI, and data collection have allowed businesses to better target and personalize their offers, as well as collect much more data about consumer behavior, intent, and web history.
As a result, online users are paying closer attention to how far companies have gone to collect and use visitor data, and what requires overt consent. Additionally, as businesses continued to seek creative ways to get their digital ads viewed, consumers felt many ads were annoying, misleading, overwhelming, or just poorly designed. Many are eager to have more control over their web experience, and consensual options for engaging with websites they enjoy.
These trends have resulted in adoption of a variety of adblockers (aka ad blockers), privacy blockers, and tracking blockers, each with a unique purpose and features. Typically available as extensions, these blocking add-ons, such as AdBlockPlus and Privacy Badger, can be found on all major browsers and installed by users quickly.
What is an Adblocker?
Adblockers are technology that can block online ads from being viewed based on a variety of factors, allowing a user to have more control over ads viewed on mobile or desktop. Key adblocking features include blocking ads by specific URL, blocking by specific adtech vendors, blocking by ad unit size/type and more.
Other common features of adblocking software include whitelisting specific websites to support content creators, allowing ads following "Acceptable Ads" guidelines, and basic tools for blocking access to malicious websites or annoyances.
Adblockers are most typically free and easy-to-install browser extensions, such as AdBlock Plus and AdBlock, but can also be standalone software, network DNS filters, or even hardware solutions. Basic adblocking features are also built into popular browsers out-of-the-box, such as Chrome or Edge settings to block pop-up ads.
What is a Tracking Blocker?
A tracking blocker is software or browser settings which limit programmatic trackers from capturing and recording a user's online activity.
Most websites track visitors, clicks, pageviews, and often use 3rd party tracking tools to personalize site experience or target ads to consumers based on past web history and visits. This tracking occurs without visible indicators, and most online users never know when they are being tracked or the full extent of it. As retargeting has gotten more precise, consumers have become concerned at just how quickly advertisers know their every online step.
Users are also concerned that a data storage breach of this accumulated information could result in their personal online history or sensitive data being exposed.
Tracking blocker features can include hiding user search queries, anonymous web surfing, sending do-no-track header information, deleting third-party cookies, hiding a user's IP address and more.
What is a Privacy Blocker?
A privacy blocker often encompasses features of both ad blockers and tracking blockers, and the term can serve as an umbrella for a set of features designed to protect user's online privacy first and foremost. Privacy blockers are particularly focused on preventing third party requests, cookies, and scripts.
Popular privacy blockers include Ghostery, Disconnect, and Privacy Badger, an initiative of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Approaches include filtering by lists of known tracking sites, quantifying the number of requests by third party sites, or using an algorithm to learn which sites are tracking a user.
The focus of privacy blockers is evident in this commitment from Privacy Badger to "...automatically analyze and block any tracker or ad that violated the principle of user consent". The focus being on consent versus avoiding annoyance, user experience or ad frequency.
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