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The Mossberg Report

Now You See 'Em...

Published: June 15, 2000

IF YOU FLIP through this magazine, you'll find lots of great articles, but also some pretty interesting ads. The ads don't impede or slow down your reading of the articles, and the advertisers don't know who you are or what you're reading at any moment. So your privacy is safe in print.

But on a typical Web site, the ads are at best an annoyance, at worst a real detriment to using the Internet and a threat to your privacy. So several companies are now making software that blocks ads from appearing and stops the advertisers from surreptitiously collecting information about you. I've been testing the best and simplest of these programs, called AdSubtract.

I'm not against ads in principle. Advertising is the mother's milk of all the mass media. Without ads, most editorial products and other programming would be either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. And ads often can be as interesting and valuable as the content they surround. But at this early stage of the development of the Internet, the ads it carries have almost none of the advantages and many more disadvantages than advertising in the more established mass media.

On a Web site, the banner ads are usually gaudy and distracting. But unlike print ads, they rarely offer much information. To get anything out of them, you have to leave the content site altogether and go off to a different site, which is a pain.

More important, these largely useless ads badly slow down the whole Web experience. Can you imagine having to wait for the ink on a magazine page to appear while the ads materialize? Finally, and most disturbing, some of the largest Web advertisers are quietly building profiles of people who view pages on which their ads appear, whether or not the users even click on the ads. DoubleClick, a big company that "serves" ads from its own computers to many of the Web's most prominent sites, slips a cookie on to the computers of people who see its ads.

Now, cookies can be good or bad. Many Web sites use them to store user preferences and priorities, such as which stock quotes a user wants displayed. Others use cookies to collect information on user behavior. But at least these cookies are placed there by Web sites the user is consciously visiting, even frequenting. DoubleClick is putting its cookies on your PC without delivering any benefit at all. And because its ads appear all over the Web, the company can potentially track your behavior across many sites.

Now, however, there's software that can free you from Web ads and from DoubleClick's cookies, or anybody else's. Two monster Internet security programs, Norton Internet Security and McAfee Guard Dog, have ad strippers buried deep inside them. But I find such programs complex and unwieldy. If you want to block ads, I recommend AdSubtract, a simple little Windows program from a company called InterMute Inc., based in Braintree, Mass.

The basic AdSubtract version, called AdSubtract SE, is free and can be downloaded at It works with Windows 95, 98, 2000 and NT, and is effective with all leading Web browsers, including America Online. Installation is quick and simple.

Once installed, AdSubtract runs in the background. It intercepts the Web sites coming into your browser, removes nearly every ad and blocks nearly all cookies. You can optionally set it to play a gunshot sound for every ad or cookie it strips off. On some pages, it sounds like a machine gun. You can also view a running list of the ads and cookies it blocks, sometimes dozens per site.

The basic version comes preconfigured to deal with DoubleClick. It automatically blocks both ads and cookies from that company, even if you don't choose to block any other ads or cookies. It also can be set to block all other ads and cookies, at all sites. If you want to allow cookies or ads on certain trusted, favorite sites, the basic version allows you to enter up to five sites as exceptions to the general rule.

The Pro version costs $30, and has many more features. It allows unlimited custom exceptions, sites where cookies or ads can be selectively received. It also has a feature that identifies all the cookies already on your hard disk, and allows you to delete those you don't want. In addition to ads and cookies, the Pro version will block animations, pop-up windows, background images and the annoying music some sites blast at you. It will also block "referrers," special messages that tell a Web site where you've just come from.

There are some downsides to AdSubtract. It interferes with a few legitimate Web sites and services, so you have to set up these sites as exceptions. You may also have to tweak some settings in Quicken. In my tests, the basic version of the program also crashed on me once.

But I can recommend AdSubtract heartily. It's simple, effective and a great weapon against the intrusive, in-your-face ad practices so prevalent on the Web today.

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