Tool in the Spotlight: Pure URL

This month’s Tool in the Spotlight: Pure URL, a Firefox extension that removes tracking query string fields like “utm_source=*” from URLs (the homepage of its creator is over here. NOTE: while, according to the add-on web page, the tools declares to be available under the GPL v3.0, we can’t find the location of its actual source code).

What makes us excited about this add-on is that it automatically modifies and strips all unnecessary query string content (e.g. “utm_source=*” but others as well) from URLs that it encounters while you are browsing. Many sites embed these query string elements in links that they provide in order to track you, their advertisement campaigns, conversion sources, etc.
But these fields are of no use to you and even work against your best interests.

What Pure URL does, is turn a hyperlink like this:
https://www.domain.com/?page=7741&utm_source=somesite.com&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=mail
into the more reasonable:
https://www.domain.com/?page=7741

By default, Pure URL treats and removes the following unnecessary query string elements (lifted and modified from the extension’s web page as of writing of this article):

  • utm_source, utm_medium, utm_term, utm_content, utm_campaign: spyware fields used by Google Analytics
  • yclid: spyware fields used by Yandex
  • feature: a useless field used by youtube.com
  • fb_action_ids, fb_action_types, fb_ref, fb_source, action_object_map, action_type_map, action_ref_map: spyware fields used by Facebook
  • ref, fref, hc_location: tracking fields used by Facebook
  • ref_: tracking field used by imdb.com

Pure URL strips out these query string values from hyperlinks by default and lets you specify which others you want it to strip as well (and – but why would you do this – which ones of the above, you want to keep).
One word of caution: it is unclear whether or not it prevents these values from being submitted to servers when you make a request containing these values yourself. In other words: it is unclear whether or not this add-on only modifies your DOM or whether it also modifies your requests. This can be an issue when you click on links containing these values in another program (e.g. e-mail client) which then opens up the page in your browser.

While IvyDNS already protects you against this type of tracking on your end, it is useful to have a multi-layered approach to your online security and privacy. Pure URL is a nice addition to these layers which also prevent the server-side from tracking you through these query string values.

NOTE: we are entirely unaffiliated with whoever produces this tool, we receive no compensation whatsoever from them.

The fallacy of “personalized advertising”

When peddlers of on-line advertising talk about their product, they hail ‘personalized advertising’ as a good thing, something you should actively want because, so they claim, “it is relevant content”.
But if you think carefully about it, you soon realize that this framing of the situation starts from an incorrect premise, namely that it is OK to be abused by adverts and that personalization of these ads is a cherry on top of the cake.

We disagree with this for at least the following reasons:

  • By definition, advertising is manipulative: its sole purpose is to change your behavior or opinion in favor of the advertised product or service.
  • Advertising interferes with what you are doing. Think about the last time you said to yourself “I’d love to watch some (on-line) ads now instead of doing what I set out to do”. Take your time…
    Almost no-one likes ads or is eagerly anticipating whatever they are trying to do or accomplish, to be interrupted by an ad.
  • Most people reluctantly accept advertising as a necessary evil, a way to fund things that would otherwise not get funded. This in itself is a huge indemnification of advertising and shows that, fundamentally, it is not something we desire, instead, we endure it… (even though there are ways to pay for these things; just search for the “(digital) subscription” link on, for instance, your favorite on-line news provider)
  • Personalized advertising, by definition, requires an invasion of your privacy: it only works if and when you tell third parties things about you that you would otherwise never reveal. This is so that the system can get to know you, can learn about you and figure out which impulses you are most vulnerable to.
  • Personalized advertising works against you: it finds your weaknesses by following you everywhere and then exploits what it finds in order to cajole you into performing actions you would otherwise not perform, namely spending your hard-earned money.

Personalized advertising is not acceptable and is really nothing more than an admission that “we realize everyone hates ads, we’re going to make the pill less bitter by trying to serve you ads that our system thinks you will object to the least“.
A pill less bitter, is still a bitter pill.

IvyDNS protects you from abuse by advertisers and other miscreants, whether it is theft, exposing you to malware or an invasion of your privacy.