Plug-ins for Privacy: Disconnect and Adblock


This month on Plug-ins for Privacy, I’ll be reviewing a couple of Chrome extensions. Chrome is a blazingly fast browser because it’s simple by design, but does it have the knobs and fiddly bits that help you protect your child from the wilds of the Internet? Speed and simplicity do indeed come at the cost of control, but several browser extensions can put that control back in your hands.

[This is a guest post from Cyrus Nemati, web producer at the Center for Democracy & Technology]


The Internet can be an unpredictable place, but one thing that you can predict is that the major online players want to know where you and your child are browsing. Elements that we’re very used to now, such as the Facebook “Like” button or information pulled from search engines, are fun and useful tools for us that are also subtle ways for others to track us around the web.

Disconnect is an add-on that exists to remove the tracking elements commonly used by social networks and search engines from websites. It doesn’t just remove the tracking ability from the tracking elements – it removes the elements entirely. Once Disconnect is installed, you won’t see Digg, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, or Twitter elements around the web at all. No Like buttons, no sharing options. Nothing.

As an experiment, I decided to try Disconnect while using Flock. Flock is a customization of the Chrome browser meant to make social networking central to the browser, so you can probably imagine how I tittered and shook in geeky anticipation of what I hoped would be a glorious battle between polar forces. I was not disappointed! As expected, running Disconnect on Flock essentially destroyed most of the key browser functions, a sight which can be either wildly entertaining or needlessly annoying, depending on how easily entertained you are. (I think Jack Black is hilarious, so you can imagine my endless amusement at seeing my browser destroyed.) Disconnect: 1, Flock: 0.

Disconnect seems to be quite comprehensive for what it does, but it’s difficult to tell what it’s actually doing. While browsing Gawker, for instance, I can see that 12 Google items are blocked. What are they? Analytics tools? Contextual search results? Public calendars? What if you want one item blocked but not another? The leash that Disconnect gives you on web services it monitors can be held in two ways: extremely tight and nonexistent, so be careful of “breaking” your child’s Internet.

Privacy Power

Disconnect is quite functional at “disconnecting” you from the services it monitors; you won’t see any common social network tracking elements on websites you visit. However, you also won’t know if you’re blocking something you’d rather see. Disconnect could easily gain a higher score in this category if it were a little more transparent about what it does and doesn’t block.

Ease of Use

Just install the extension, and Disconnect is all set to block anything it’s capable of blocking. If you want to unblock an element, simply hit the Disconnect icon and click the items you want revealed. Unfortunately, you’ll have to refresh the page manually to see those items.


Disconnect is unique in that it’s very well suited to the Chrome way of doing things. Like the base Chrome browser, it’s extremely simple, unobtrusive, and dedicated to a single task.


You can cherry-pick sites for your children to browse (or use the myriad software, browser extensions, and filter lists to do it for you), but you can’t control the advertisements that show up on those sites. There is no software in the world that can predict what advertisements might show up on a website.

I’m not saying advertisements are, by nature, a bad thing, but when they compromise your child’s privacy, they’ve overstayed their welcome. Flash-based advertisements can place lingering cookies on your computer, and location-based advertisements are only going to become more accurate in the future (you don’t really want your child to know about the new Chuck E Cheese’s that just opened a few miles away, do you?). Adblock is a nice way to make sure these advertisements can’t show up.

By default, Adblock blocks a lot. It works by using filter lists to cleanly remove entire divisions of a page that may contain advertisements. The built-in filters are pretty comprehensive (perhaps almost to the point of overkill), but if you manage to find something that Adblock has missed, eliminating an ad area is wonderfully simple. In fact, you can block any area on a page, not just ads. For instance, if you hate Spongebob Squarepants with the fire of a thousand suns and would like your children never to see his hideous visage again, you can use Adblock to methodically remove his loathsome presence from any part of any website.

Privacy Power

Adblock is almost excessively private when it comes to advertisements. The only way it could really get more comprehensive is if it started blocking positive movie reviews on The ability to add new custom rules completes any gaps the filter lists miss.

Ease of Use

Like many Chrome extensions, Adblock is dead simple to install and use. By default, Adblock rigidly blocks most advertisements from view. Although you have no real on-the-fly control unless you install the actual button for it (the button is a separate extension), things are self-explanatory once you get to the settings.


Blocking ads is a no-brainer as an idea for an extension. However, Adblock’s comprehensive filter lists and on-the-fly blocking of individual areas separate it from the pack. The lists that Adblock uses are maintained by a very large, active community of dedicated people – not robots – something other ad blocking extensions can’t claim.

Chrome can be a speedy and private browser that’s child-safe if you take a little time to make it so. More extensions are being written for Chrome all the time, and we can expect many of them to be privacy related. Tune in next month, when I’ll review privacy plug-ins for Firefox 4 (assuming it’s out by then, that it). Until then, be sure to check out CDT’s browser report to get an idea of how all the top browser makers are trying to outdo each other on privacy control. You are a GeekDad, after all.

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