A Short Response to Fred Langa

Fred Langa mentions IE-SPYAD in the May 2 '02 edition of his popular LangaList newsletter (thanks Fred!). In response to a reader's recommendation of IE-SPYAD for handling annoying pop-ups and pop-unders, Fred raises at least one issue with using IE-SPYAD. He writes:

That approach works, but it places control of which ads display (or not) in the hands of the people who compile the IESpy list: *They* (and not you) decide what gets shown. As with the other blanket approaches we previously discussed, this runs the risk of "punishing" not only bad sites with abusive ads, but also the good ones that depend on advertising to stay alive: Block enough ads, and the free sites you enjoy today may go out of business tomorrow.  

In some ways Fred has a point here. If you use IE-SPYAD, you are indeed relying on a list compiled by me (there is no one else involved in putting together IE-SPYAD). But Fred's critique makes this mundane fact sound potentially sinister -- as if users were entirely cut out of the loop when using IE-SPYAD and thus completely at the mercy of whatever whims happened to strike me when I put the IE-SPYAD list together ("*They* [and not you] decide what gets shown."). 

There are several problems with this impression:

  1. You control the Restricted sites zone
     
    Users are free to remove any entries they want to from the Restricted sites list loaded by IE-SPYAD. As is explained in the ReadMe.txt for IE-SPYAD, simply go to Tools >> Internet Options... >> Security, select the Restricted sites zone, and hit the "Sites" button. From there you can scroll through the list of sites that have been added to your Restricted sites zone. If a particular entry doesn't accord with your browsing preferences, select it and click "Remove." It's that easy.
     
  2. You can customize IE-SPYAD
     
    Users can customize the IE-SPYAD list before merging it into the Registry. One of the nice things about the IE-SPYAD list is that it's delivered as a .REG file (Registry file). You can edit IE-SPYAD's IE-ADS.REG file with a simple, plain text editor like Notepad, allowing you not only to see exactly what will be loaded into your Restricted sites zone, but to customize that list of sites to your heart's desire. All the sites are alphabetized and grouped into several sections. Indeed, I format the IE-ADS.REG file for the explicit purpose of allowing users to edit and customize it. If you're unfamiliar with .REG files, you can find extensive notes about editing IE-ADS.REG in the ReadMe.txt.
     
  3. IE-SPYAD is built from well-known sources
     
    The main source for IE-SPYAD's list of domains and servers is not mysterious. I freely advertise the fact that I have relied heavily (but not entirely) on Stephen Martin's excellent HOSTS file (no longer available, though), perhaps the most extensive list of known advertising and "spyware" servers to be found on the Internet. I do add other entries drawn from my own web surfing as well as articles that appear on popular tech media sites like ZDNet, CNET's News.com, InfoWorld, InformationWeek, and, yes, Fred's very own LangaList
     
  4. IE-SPYAD is well-documented
     
    I encourage IE-SPYAD users to take a look under the hood and ask questions. To that end, I've put together a ReadMe.txt that is more extensive than the ones you get with many for-pay programs that you can download from the Internet.
     
  5. I listen to users
     
    I do respond to questions and concerns from users who email me. I get email all the time from users of IE-SPYAD, and I always answer their questions and concerns. If you think a site or domain has been mistakenly or unjustly included in IE-SPYAD, or if a particular entry is causing you problems when it is added to the Restricted sites zone, feel free to email me at:

     
             

     
    I'm human. I do occasionally make mistakes, and I have dropped entries from the IE-SPYAD list in response to user concerns.

Bottom line: there's nothing in IE-SPYAD that's hidden or withheld from you. You ultimately decide what sites are loaded into the Restricted sites zone by IE-SPYAD, and you retain complete control over what you choose to view or not view on web sites.

There are several other problems with Fred's critique of IE-SPYAD, however.

  • The distinction he makes between "bad sites with abusive ads"  and  "good ones that depend on advertising to stay alive" is more problematic than Fred lets on. Even "bad sites with abusive ads" often "depend on advertising to stay alive," and Fred's distinction is thus less helpful than it might initially sound. If "bad sites with abusive ads" "depend on advertising to stay alive," are users obligated not to block those ads?
     
  • IE-SPYAD's main function is not to block ads. As explained in the ReadMe.txt, placing sites in the Restricted sites zone will not, by and large, block advertising (esp. banner ads), though it will block cookies from large, third-party advertisers (not legitimate first-party web sites) and will prevent those third-parties from using active content such as ActiveX controls, Java applets, and scripts. It will also reduce, though not completely eliminate, the number of pop-up/pop-under ads that you encounter.
     
  • IE-SPYAD is not made to "punish" web sites in any way. In fact, I recently disclaimed that very purpose in a post to DSLR's Security forum during the Radlight/AdAware controversy. See THIS page (I'm eburger68). IE-SPYAD's only purpose is to give users another method for protecting their privacy and security on the Web.
     
  • Fred offers several reasons and examples for being selective when blocking pop-ups (see the next section in that LangaList), but they are simply not issues for IE-SPYAD. IE-SPYAD does not block secondary browser windows at all. Still further, IE-SPYAD won't block "additional info" links at legitimate first-party sites (WindowsUpdate, the example he uses, isn't even in the IE-SPYAD list). The vast majority of pop-ups and pop-unders that IE-SPYAD blocks will be from third-party advertisers and "spyware" pushers, not innocuous first-party sites offering helpful info to users.

Fred's final reason for counseling caution with IE-SPYAD ("Block enough ads, and the free sites you enjoy today may go out of business tomorrow") goes well beyond what I can address in this short space. Suffice it to say that IE-SPYAD is available to offer you choices for protecting your privacy and security while browsing the Web. It's not my business (or Fred's, for that matter) to lecture you on what sites, ads, and pop-ups you ought to be viewing or blocking.

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