Two Easy Ways to Make Your Internet Browsing More Pleasant

There's a lot of talk about the impending release of iOS 9, most of which revolves around the content blocking feature that's built-in for developers to program against. I have a feeling the top grossing apps this Fall will almost assuredly be content blockers and I'm personally pretty excited about that due to the very sad state of mobile advertising.

We have banners that are fixed to various portions of our screens, modal windows, lightboxes, fly-out banners, and more, each one getting in the way of the content we're there to either consume or, in the case of retailers, adding "friction" (I know, it makes me feel icky to just say it) to the process of actually trying to purchase a product.

There are already several ways to make your desktop browsing experience much more pleasant, and all I want to share with you today is what has worked wonders for me. It's a combination of a safe system-level change and a content blocker on your web browser of choice. You can do either one individually or both in tandem, it's totally up to you.

Install Atom

Atom is a free text editor for Mac and PC from the fine folks over at Github. I use for any and all programming-related tasks, and it'll be the most reliable way to handle this first step of the process. The rest of this article will assume you're using a Mac, as evidenced by the large majority of the readership here according to analytics, but the same basic principals apply to Windows 7 and up as well.

Once installed, open Atom and from the Atom menu, chose Install Shell Commands:

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You'll be prompted for your password and then you can hide or minimize Atom for just a moment while we do the next step, but first:

Quick Aside: What is a hosts file?

The average person will never have to deal with a hosts file in their entire computing life, but it still helps to know what it is. It's essentially a text file your computer will consult first before asking your ISP where to look for a website or file on the internet. Web developers will often adjust the hosts file in order to develop a website locally. You can can also block entire domains this way. Say you never wanted to use social media again, you could add these lines to your hosts file...

0.0.0.0     facebook.com
0.0.0.0     twitter.com
0.0.0.0     plus.google.com
0.0.0.0     linkedin.com

...and you'd be blocked from visiting those domains. Many IP addresses can accomplish this (like 0.0.0.0 used above), but the most common one is 127.0.0.1 which is often referred to as localhost or the IP your computer uses to identify itself. So, with this information in hand, we can resume.

Let's Block the Bad Guys

Open Terminal on your Mac by navigating to /Applications/Utilities/Terminal.app or launching via Spotlight. On Windows you'd be opening Command Prompt, following the steps outlined in this comprehensive article. In the Terminal window on your Mac, type the following line

atom /etc/hosts

This tells Atom to open our hosts file, and gives us a nice text editor that we can copy and paste into. An awesome fellow by the name of Dan Pollock was nice enough to compile an incredibly comprehensive hosts file that blocks all manner of evil ad servers, shock sites, tracking beacons, and many of the other nefarious things lurking on the internet. You can find the list here: http://someonewhocares.org/hosts/hosts

I first started using this list back in February and have no complaints. There's never been an instance where a site or file I've needed has inexplicably been unavailable and, more often than not, I end up seeing far fewer creepy and intrusive ads on my primary machine than on my work laptop. All you have to do is copy the contents of that website (Command + A), paste it into your hosts file, and save. You can browse through all of the entries, though it's rather cumbersome at 11,657 lines as of this writing.

You could stop here and your internet browsing experience—and load speeds—would be greatly improved. When a website tries to call up an ad server, your hosts file would see it first (before even trying to fetch it from the internet) and just block it all together. The one issue here is that this file needs to be maintained, so you'll have to update your hosts file against Dan's list every month or so to stay current. I personally don't mind this, especially since it's so easy. However, there's one other thing you can do to make sure everything is cinched up nice and tight.

Install uBlock

A lot of folks are staunch believers in AdBlock Plus and while it's generally the biggest name in the realm of privacy, it's also a confirmed resource hog and companies can buy their way off of block lists. That's why I opt to use uBlock, which is more lightweight and has a ton of options baked in to customize exactly what blocklists to use. In the event that some ads sneak around the hosts file trick we worked on above, uBlock can catch them and stop them from cluttering up your web experience. The fact is, I actually discovered Dan Pollock's above hosts file trick from the documentation of uBlock. Is has that and about 40 other blocklists you can choose from.

Wrapping Up

Between the hosts file update and uBlock, you should be well on your way to a better browsing experience on your desktop. With the upcoming release of iOS 9, you'll almost certainly be able to have similar control of your mobile browsing experience as well.