This iPhone App Blocks Behavior-Tracking Ads and Evades Blocker-Blockers
Amid the ongoing chaos of the ad-blocking wars, a two-person team of privacy activists have launched Better, a new content-blocking app for iOS with a slightly different approach that seems to evade the blocker-detection schemes of several major sites.
“The problem isn’t advertising; it’s behavioural advertising,” reads a press release from Ind.ie, the organization behind the app. The creators explicitly describe Better as “not an ad blocker” but rather a “malware blocker.”
“One of the reasons why we created Better is because we didn’t want to trawl though endless block lists copied and pasted from around the web to understand what was being blocked and why,” Ind.ie co-founder Aral Balkan explained to me in an email.
“Better is creating its own knowledge base, in human-readable format, and working to raise awareness through editorial content,” Balkan said. “The content itself has the blocking rules embedded and it’s from that that the machine-readable list is automatically generated.”
That approach seems to have paid off. In Motherboard’s initial testing, Better was not detected by several popular news sites that block visitors using ad and tracker-blockers, including WIRED and Forbes. Given the rapidly evolving nature of the ad-blocking landscape, it’s worth noting that this might change in the future, however.
In doing so, Better has entered an increasingly crowded and chaotic battle over online advertising, corporate surveillance, and ad-based publishing models.
On one side is a cottage industry of content-blocking apps like Ghostery, Privacy Badger and Disconnect, designed to fight the invasive and malware-spreading third-party ads and trackers that have infested the web. On the other, advertisers and publishers who depend on ad revenue are resorting to increasingly invasive means of tracking and profiling users, with some configuring their sites to block visitors that use blockers—often without distinguishing those that block tracking rather than ads.
In addition to the practical aspects of blocking—like faster page loads and stopping companies from tracking everything you do online—Better also serves as a kind of educational platform, allowing users to better understand the ad trackers they encounter and shame the sites that use them.
Perhaps more importantly, says Balkan, Better is trying to distinguish itself as an independent, open-source alternative to the current batch of ad and tracker-blocking apps—most of which are created by for-profit companies that actually benefit the advertising industry, either by doing their own analytics on users or selectively unblocking advertisers willing to shell out some dough. In addition to sales from its app, Ind.ie relies on individual donations and explicitly refuses to accept venture capital, among other principles outlined in its ethical design manifesto.
The non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation offers something similar with its Privacy Badger browser plugin. But that app still isn’t available on iOS, which recently gained support for content-blockers in its built-in Safari browser.
Better also has limited support for blocking more novel forms of web tracking, like browser fingerprinting, and Balkan says Ind.ie will further develop those methods once the app becomes more established.
“We already block some browser fingerprinting and canvas capture and are on the lookout for blocking more of it,” said Balkan. “We’re concentrating our efforts on blocking the most common trackers so that we can have the greatest impact.”
Correction: This post was updated to clarify that Ind.ie is a for-profit company, but doesn’t accept money from investors to prevent compromising its principles.