Reminiscing on the necessity of adblocking.

11 November 2022

You might be wondering why I've been up on my bullshit about adblocking and web browsers lately. Privacy issues aside there's a story behind this (which, if you know me, should be entirely unsurprising).

It hasn't been any particular secret that I've been living in the Bay Area for the last decade or so. I'm sorry to say that some of the stereotypes of Silicon Valley are, in fact, true and partially to blame for my encroaching kinetic pattern baldness. One of these things is the compulsive propensity to gather every last scrap of user information, no matter how trivial or worthless (do you really need to know the system time of someone browsing your site down to the nanosecond?) by stuffing vast amounts of Javascript tracking code into each and every page. As you might imagine the time required to download all of that tracking crap is nontrivial, as is the time necessary for the user's web browser to start executing all of it.

A few jobs ago in the Before times, part of my job was to go to various and sundry meetups around San Francisco and "represent the company," which is a polite way of saying "Keep shoving our logo in front of lots of eyes in the hopes that somebody will want to do business with us." Whether or not I had any interest in what the meetup was about, or even if it had absolutely nothing to do with my position I had to go and pretend to be an extrovert.

To quote Bugs Bunny, "Eh, it's a living."

One of these meetups happened to be an HTML5 developers gathering, where people basically came together to show off whatever they were working on at the time and drink. I was approached by several attendees who had never heard of that information security thing and wanted to ask questions about it. I figured, sure, this is something that I actually know about and don't mind discussing. Somehow, and I don't quite remember how (maybe it was the discussion drifting onto the subject of privacy, maybe it was talking about browsing the web with limited bandwidth) but I brought up the subject of adblocking, and one of my interlocutors got his nose out of joint. "Ad blocking takes money out of my mouth," he said, "and it'll destroy my company!"

I should add that this individual had, not twenty minutes before, been bragging about selling his third startup to some megacorp and was thinking about going on vacation for a couple of months before starting a fourth. He wasn't yet ready to retire he said. His Lamborgini was also the only one I've ever seen up close. Make of this what you will.

So I proposed an experiment. I unpacked Windbringer, booted up, and got onto the meeting space's guest wireless network. To establish a control experience I started Firefox in troubleshooting mode, which not only disables all of the installed addons it also ignores all of your configuration changes and on-disk cache, so it runs more or less as if you've just installed Firefox for the very first time, with no established profile. I then loaded this gentleman's ex-pride and joy while he timed it.1 Counting the speed of the guest wireless network, it took about 3:15 (three minutes and fifteen seconds) for the site to load completely, i.e., to normal usability.

I then repeated the experiment in toto, going so far as to power Windbringer down, reboot, and so forth, but this time I loaded my usual Firefox profile with its usual complement of addons. With all of the tracking crap stripped out, his site loaded completely in about 20 seconds (again, counting the speed and load of the guest wireless network.

Needless to say, he didn't like this much. I found out a day or two later from my boss at the time that the individual I'd made look bad in front of his peers reached out to the meetup's organizer and told him to disinvite me permanently. This suited me just fine; I'm a systems geek, not a web designer. There are also one or two other lessons to learn here, but I'll leave those as an exercise to the reader.

One thing I have been thinking about since finishing the draft of this article is a thing that I'd heard a lot from web geeks for quite a few years. So they used to say, if a page loads in less than a second users will click away and never come back to a site. This always seemed off to me, mostly because they were saying it when dialup modems were the only way to get online and even Lynx couldn't load a page in less than five seconds. As the somewhat unscientific experiment I did earlier showed, obviously some people are willing to wait three minutes and change for a crappy .io domain to load up, so I think that kind of puts the lie to the whole "you have one second for a page to load" thing.

  1. I timed it also, because I didn't trust him to do so honestly, or even argue in good faith.