An Overview of Disconnect Ad Blocking, VPN and Anti-Censorship Tools

Disconnect is a suite of privacy tools that aims to make online privacy the “default” by providing ad blocking, VPN anti-censorship functionality and more. Is it equal to or greater than the sum of its parts? Read on for an overview.

Disconnect originated as a Chrome extension called Facebook Disconnect. That tool blocked third-party connections to users’ Facebook pages in an effort to restrict online tracking and help block ads.

The current version of Disconnect does much more than its early predecessor. It now supports Firefox, Safari and Opera in addition to Chrome, and it adds VPN encryption and censorship circumvention features to its original feature set.

Disconnect takes a somewhat different approach to blocking ads and tracking than do most other ad blockers. Instead of blacklisting servers known to host ads, it attempts to intercept all connections between your Web browser and the site you are visiting. It then determines which of these third-party connections are related to desired content, and which are used to deliver ads or tracking software. It blocks the latter types of connections.

While Disconnect is configured by default to be aggressive about blocking third-party content, it provides options that let users tweak its behavior if they find that it is preventing access to types of information that should be displayed. Users can also whitelist particular sites if they don’t want Disconnect to regulate them.

Because of the way Disconnect works, it makes most sense to think of it not as an ad blocker, but as a sort of user-friendly firewall tool. There are better apps available if your primary concern is blocking ads. If you want to restrict entire categories of connections, Disconnect is your solution.

Disconnect also offers some basic VPN features if you purchase the premium version of the software, which costs $5 per month or $50 per year. (VPN service is not available in the free edition.) In particular, the app will tunnel your traffic through a VPN to provide data encryption in otherwise insecure environments, like open wifi connections, and you can choose to route traffic through VPNs based in certain countries in order to defeat censorship. If you want a truly robust VPN with advanced features, Disconnect is not the best choice, but it offers some basic VPN functionality for a low price.

The bottom line: Disconnect provides online privacy solutions in several different categories. It’s probably not the best or most robust tool in any of those individual categories — tools designed specifically for a specific, single task are better if you only need a certain type of privacy solution — but it does offer a broad blanket of privacy protection that is easy to configure and inexpensive.

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