Clean Up Your Browser’s Act

We’ve all been there: someone shares a link with interesting content that you just can’t quite get to. Maybe you’ve hit your limit of free articles for the month. Maybe the site doesn’t like the fact that you’re using an ad blocker. Or maybe you can access the content but you can’t enjoy it because flashy ads and auto-play videos distract the eye.

You’re not alone; most of the internet is a complete mess. JavaScript is largely to blame, but shitty website design can spill over into all kinds of platforms and technologies. The end result is an alienated audience.

Thank goodness there’s a solution!

There are multiple solutions actually, but I’m going to focus on just two: how to add extensions that will make your desktop browsing experience clean and easy (not to mention safe and private), and how to straight-up kill JavaScript in both your mobile and desktop browsers.

It’s worth noting that there are many good “reader view” extensions out there that will present content in a clean and distraction-free context. Sadly most mobile browsers do not allow extensions. Some mobile browsers come with built-in reader view functionalities, but they may or may not pierce soft paywalls.

(A quick note: you don’t have to be a cyber-hacker to use these tools. I’ve kept this tutorial at a high enough level for most semi-active internet users.)

Let’s do this!

ONE: MOBILE PRIVACY & SECURITY

The very first thing you should do is get a VPN and run it all the time on every device you use. Gonna say that again: use a VPN all the time on every device you use. Why? Because the man is watching, that’s why. Forget useless “incognito” browser tabs; without a VPN, everyone (including your internet service provider) see every website you visit. (Yes, even that one.)

What’s more, your phone likely has a number of apps that continually broadcast your private data to who knows where. Turn on a VPN and that data is (largely) rendered useless.

There are some decent free VPN providers out there, but as your parents are so fond of saying, you get what you pay for. My personal favorite is Private Internet Access, which runs about $40 a year. They have fantastic apps that you can download for your mobile or desktop device that allow you to easily switch your VPN on and off at the touch of a finger.

The next thing I urge you to do is ditch your phone’s default browser and switch to the DuckDuckGo mobile browser. Most mobile operating systems allow you to select your own default browser, and this is what you should do once you download and install DDG.

One of the reasons I love the DDG mobile browser so much is because the most important security and privacy essentials come pre-baked: ads are blocked, trackers are stifled, and it has a killer burn button that you can press anytime to watch your history and cookies go up in a ball of flames. Cool!

So this will clean up most internet content, but it won’t get you past soft paywalls and sites that block users with ad blockers. Which brings us to our next section.

TWO: HOW TO STRAIGHT-UP KILL JAVASCRIPT ON YOUR MOBILE BROWSER

This is the silver bullet that will kill all moving ads, auto-play videos, and soft paywalls dead. It’s the nuclear option, in a way, but it’s completely safe and can be deactivated as easily as it’s switched on.

The only downside is that you may not be able to engage some desirable functionality like searching and logging in / out. The upside however is that everything gets shut down including trackers, ads, and more. The result is an extremely clean (if slightly limited) content viewing experience.

(JavaScript, as you may have already guessed, is the front-end programming language that animates websites and makes them more interactive.)

There are multiple mobile operating systems and at least five major browsers, way too much to cover in one post. I’m going to focus on the Safari mobile browser for iOS to keep things simple.

The first step is to install the NoJS app on your iPhone. You won’t use this app directly; it’ll be accessed through a mobile browser’s options, as you’ll see shortly. Just install it and forget it.

Now you can bash right through soft paywalls like this one on the iPhone Safari mobile app:

Oh no, what are you going to do?

Easy! You’re going to click on the up arrow at the bottom of the Safari app, that’s what you’re going to do.

Then you’re going to scroll down and select the View with no.js option, which is now available because you installed that No JS app.

BOOM! Now you can access the full article. You’re welcome. Tell your friends.

Unfortunately this tool will not get you past hard paywalls like the one over at the Wall St. Journal’s website. Most paywalls these days are soft, but content owners are hardening things up all the time.

(A quick note that, unlike DuckDuckGo, mobile browsers like Safari will accumulate cookies and history unless and until you actively delete them. There are lots of guides out there to walk you through how to do that.)

THREE: DESKTOP PRIVACY & SECURITY

(Gonna say it again: use a VPN all the time on every device. PIA, my favorite VPN provider, has a handy desktop app for all operating systems that can be easily installed and switched on and off at will.)

Desktop browsing is a bit of a different animal, but the essentials are the same. (Sadly DuckDuckGo, my mobile browser of choice, doesn’t have a desktop browser yet. Sounds like they’re working on one though.)

Most desktop browsers have privacy features that automatically delete your cookies and history every time you quit the app. I recommend engaging this functionality right away. You’ll lose auto-completed username and password fields, but it’s a small price to pay for hugely increased security and privacy.

Let’s move on to the next most powerful tool in your desktop arsenal: the mighty browser extension.

As mentioned above there are lots of browsers out there, so to keep things simple I’m going to focus on Firefox, which has a lovely desktop version.

These are the top security and privacy desktop extensions that I could never live without:

  1. Cookie AutoDelete
  2. Disconnect
  3. DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials
  4. Javascript Toggle On And Off
  5. Privacy Badger
  6. AdBlocker Ultimate

Let’s see what the Fox News website looks like on a desktop browser without any of these extensions:

Gross, right? The viewer is immediately accosted with ads and popups. It gets worse as you scroll through the article.

So let’s turn on those extensions:

Most sites will look much cleaner, have less distractions, and will lose the ability to track you with these extensions installed and turned on.

Notice that Fox News is telling us that you can’t view the content because you’re using an ad blocker. This happens! Fortunately there’s a solution, and you’ve probably already guessed what it is…

FOUR: HOW TO STRAIGHT-UP KILL JAVASCRIPT ON YOUR DESKTOP BROWSER

JavaScript Toggle On And Off is probably my favorite desktop browser extension. It’s a super easy on / off button at the top of your browser that kills and reactivates JavaScript at will. Let’s see what happens when we kill the JavaScript on that same Fox News page:

No more ad blocker warning! Now we can access and peruse the content without distraction.

Some browsers come with their own JavaScript toggles built in. Safari has a nice one that can be accessed through Preferences > Security. Disabling JavaScript in Chrome is a messy and confusing affair, even with an extension, and I don’t recommend even trying.

So there you have it! Happy browsing, and stay safe out there!

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