Ad blockers don’t stop cookie pop-ups but this browser extension will

I flew to England last year and boy were my arms tired! That said, I’m tired of clicking through cookie popups on every website I’ve visited.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: those banners or pop-ups that often appear uninvited when you visit a website you’ve never been to before. They are designed to let you know that a website is tracking you using tiny pieces of code called cookies and to provide you with a way to opt-out of those cookies, as is required by law in certain locations (e.g. England). What the pop-ups usually do is tell you that the site you’re visiting uses cookies to give you a better experience, but you can – and then you’ve probably stopped reading the fine print at this point and just hit the big bright button and says “ACCEPT” because you don’t have time for that. Now you’ve done exactly what the website asks of you: you’ve consented to being tracked.

“You’re forced to spend an inordinate amount of time digging into this thing, hunting, and finding the setting you might want is just available to you,” Jennifer King, Privacy and Data Policy Fellow at the Stanford University Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, Recode said. “You’re annoying.”

If you’re tired of protecting your privacy, I have good news for you: there are ways to refuse cookies and prevent these pop-ups from appearing in the first place. A new one called Never-Consent was announced today. It comes to us from Ghostery, which specializes in privacy-centric web tools. If it does what Ghostery promises, it will make maintaining your privacy as easy and quick as clicking “Accept” on these popups right now. The cost will be the “personalized” experience that marketers say their cookies offer.

While some cookies are necessary for a website to function and actually improve your experience, many of them are simply there to track you across the web and collect data about you, usually by companies you didn’t know had embedded them are this site in the first place. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) should notify users that they are being tracked and give them the ability to opt out of being tracked.

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In theory, the GDPR is well intentioned. But in practice, many companies have perverted the rules to give us these misleadingly worded banners that nobody understands and everyone hates. If you are looking for examples of dark patterns or designs aimed at getting people to do or choose certain things, you can usually find them in your next cookie consent pop-up.

“They make it really super easy to click the button that says ‘Yes, I accept all forms of tracking,’ and they make it super hard to say no,” said Harry Brignull, who coined the term ‘dark patterns’. has coined and follows them on his website. “For example, they might have a maze of menus and dozens of things to click on different pages. None of this stuff needs to actually exist – its sole purpose is to fool or frustrate you into giving up and just hitting the big shiny accept button.”

You may have noticed that many US websites have them too. You may also have noticed that more and more of them have been adding banners over the past few years. This is probably due to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which came into force in early 2020. According to the CCPA, websites must at least let users know that they are being tracked. Unlike the GDPR, websites are not required to provide users with the ability to decline cookies unless the users are under the age of 16. Instead of trying to figure out the relevant details — which visitors are teens and which are adults, which users are European and which aren’t, and which users are and aren’t California — many sites have simply opted for an opt-in consent banner to cover their basics. And then most of them make refusing cookies the path of greatest resistance.

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This is where Never-Consent comes into play. It automatically blocks both pop-ups and cookies. Never-Consent will be added to Ghostery’s browser extension in the coming weeks. All you have to do is install the extension, and it will do the work for you, the company says.

Krzysztof Modras, Director of Engineering and Product at Ghostery, said the company basically looked at around 100 existing cookie consent frameworks and found a way to automatically reject and block them. The Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe framework, for example, can be found on around 80 percent of European websites, but was also recently found to be in breach of the GDPR. (Oops!) This means that some websites may come by if they don’t use a third-party cookie consent mechanism known to Ghostery. But users can report these sites to Ghostery and these frameworks will be added.

There are a few other extensions you can try that do something similar to Never-Consent. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of finding and installing browser extensions – and Brignull points out that browser extensions and the companies that make them can also track you, so be careful who you trust – you can always do one Browsers that block tracking use cookies by default. At this point, almost all of them do except Chrome, which is by far the most popular and is also made by a company that has a vested interest in tracking you across the web, which is certainly a coincidence.

There’s also Global Privacy Control, which automatically tells websites not to sell or share a user’s information. But GPC isn’t available in all browsers (Chrome and Safari in particular), and sites are only required to respect it under the CCPA for California users. The UK is working on ways to get rid of cookie pop-ups and replace them with a browser-based tool as well. Ghostery’s extension blocked third-party cookies before Never-Consent. But now you can also actively tell those websites that you don’t want to be tracked, in addition to passively blocking their cookies.

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“I think the bigger picture is that it’s important to have a tool that not only blocks these things, but actively sends a no consent back to the publishers,” said Jean-Paul Schmetz, CEO of Ghostery.

How important is this really for sites that deploy pop-ups aimed at confusing and annoying you? I’m not sure. Especially if, like me, you live in a place where there are no privacy laws obliging companies to respect your preferences. But at least it makes you feel like you’re standing up for yourself.

Just don’t think that your days of annoying pop-ups or tracking are over forever. Companies are increasingly using them to encourage you to sign up for newsletters and marketing emails. It’s their way of still collecting data about you now that cookies are on their way out. As we’ve seen from the proliferation of cookie pop-ups, companies are always looking for – and likely will find – a new way to track you when their current path is closed.

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