Popup Killers - Effective?

by Bob Seidel

I had an interesting experience at a client's house the other day. I was called in because they were having trouble viewing some web pages. Some websites would work fine, but when they clicked on others, nothing would happen. I started by doing the usual system checkout, especially the Internet networking and their DSL connection. But nothing was amiss.

My client did indicate that she thought that the screen blinked rapidly when they attempted to go to the websites that wouldn't work. That was the key clue.

First of all, I noticed that the Internet Explorer window filled the screen. This might prevent us from seeing something else popping up. So, I changed the size of the window to about half of the screen and tried again to access the faulty websites. Sure enough, a new window was being created, and immediately disappeared.

Having seen this kind of behavior before, I immediately looked at the bottom right hand corner of the screen (the system tray as it is called) and, sure enough, there was an icon for one of the popup killer programs.

To short circuit the story to the end, the popup killer had falsely (or perhaps correctly) determined that the website in question was in fact some kind of advertisement and trashed it. Turned off the popup killer, and all was well.

First of all, what IS a popup killer? The term "popup" refers to an Internet Explorer (or other web browser) window that opens up on top of (or sometimes under) the current window. These sometimes happen even when you don't click on anything. They are usually done for the purpose of displaying advertising, and they can be downright annoying.

A popup killer program attempts to stop this intrusion into your personal space by closing any new browser window when it thinks the new window contains advertising. The question is: how do they do that?

Usually, it is done by looking at the name of the new web page being opened, and comparing it to a list of keywords. The keyword list contains both the names of known bad websites, and also generic terms such as "popup" or "advertisement". The problem is: this technique for identifying "bad" websites is very faulty, and that is exactly what happened to my client. Although they were clicking on valid website targets, the popup killer falsely thought it was an ad, and shut it down. This particular popup killer doesn't provide any notification when it closes a window, so my client had no way of knowing.

One of the other popup killer programs that I once used made a kind of crashing sound - very cute - when it closed a popup and thus it was easy to tell that it was working.

The bottom line is that I don't recommend popup killer programs, and I have stopped using them myself. They just are not reliable enough. And in the ongoing war between your privacy and the advertisers, new techniques are constantly being used - new battles are being waged every day. So, even if you have established a popup killer program that works for you now, it probably won't work reliably tomorrow.

I recommend that you just grin and bear it, until some progress is made on cleaning up the popup and spam email intrusions into your privacy. But progress in this arena has been painfully slow at best. Our leaders and still trying to figure out of it can be done at all, much less how to do it. Does the right of "free speech" give an advertiser the right to jump unbidden onto your screen or fill your in basket with Viagra ads? Don't hold your breath for a definitive answer soon.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport / Oak Island area. You can visit his website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail him at bsc@bobseidel.com)