With the Era of Over-sharing and the Social Fire Hose upon us, the heft and value of privacy is changing — and, for better or worse, many argue that it’s diminishing. Perturbed by the access many companies (inconspicuously) have to our browsing history, former Googler Brian Kennish developed a Chrome Extension to address the browser privacy issue. Facebook Connect, as it was called then, disabled traffic from third-party sites to Facebook, while still allowing Average Internet Surfers like you and me to access Facebook.
Thanks to the near-immediate success of the extension, Kennish left Google to focus on the project full-time, and soon launched Disconnect — to apply the same concept to other popular platforms like Google, Yahoo, Digg and Twitter. Disconnect quickly turned into a full-blown company, and Kennish recruited the help of another former Google engineer, Austin Chau, along with consumer rights advocate, Casey Oppenheim.
The driving principle behind Disconnect, Kennish told us at the time, was to ensure that personal data remains under our own control and not that of corporations and to allow users “to control who does what with their data online.” With cybersecurity becoming a hot topic, CIPSA, the reintroduction of the Do Not Track Online Act, and the seemingly ever-present outrage over Facebook (and others) using our online data to target ads (even offline), the concern over privacy and security has only increased since Disconnect’s launch.
So, this week, the startup released version 2.0 of its Chrome extension, significantly expanding its coverage of the sites we use most frequently (and its speed), in an effort to keep up with the increasing complexity and pervasiveness of the variety of stuff that can potentially infringe on our online privacy.
Again, ask the founders and they’ll tell you that the Web today is littered with analytics, advertising, social widgets and the like that gum up the gears that make page load speeds hum, while quietly redirecting your personal browsing data to tracking companies. They believe that this stuff, in turn, increases your exposure to malware and other nefarious, Web-born attacks. And they’re not alone.
Disconnect 2 updates the privacy extension so that it now allows users to visualize and block over 2,000 third-party sites and track what they do on the Web, which they claim is twice the number of tracking sites covered by other, similar apps. The founders have also optimized Disconnect for speed and, based on benchmarks of the 1,000 most popular sites, pages use “an average of 17 percent less bandwidth and load 27 percent faster” with the app, they tell us.
This has increasing application today with the proliferation of digital advertising strategies like re-targeting, which companies like Facebook continue to refine to allow them to serve more relevant, personalized ads based not only on what you do on Facebook, but your activity outside of it. Besides the creepiness factor, the tools these companies use to track our behavior slows down our experience of these sites. Plus, advertisers are naturally inclined to resist standards that would limit their ability to tap into our data.
So, unfortunately, even though most browsers allow you to flip some kind of switch to go “Incognito” or limit tracking, most people fail to recognize that this isn’t a failsafe and advertisers don’t have to oblige them.
Disconnect 2 attempts to limit advertisers’ ability to use tools like re-targeting and put a stopper on the flow of your data into their databases. So, the new version not only allows users to block potential sources of malware, but encrypt the data they do exchange with third-party sites so companies can’t steal their data or hack their accounts over public WiFi.
This kind of functionality puts Disconnect (broadly) in competition with site optimizers like Cloudflare and Torbit, among many others, along with a host of security apps and services, particularly with personal data protection tools like Ghostery.
Disconnect 2 offers a toolbar button to let user view the number of tracking requests they receive on each page and choose which ones they want to block, along with a browser dropdown that shows you tracking requests by company, with green meaning they’re blocked and gray meaning they’re unblocked. As it always has, Disconnect still allows you to block popular sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter, but now allows you to view other sites by category (like “Social,” “Advertising,” etc) and pick and choose what you block via check marks.
But, unlike many other services, Disconnect is taking a pay-what-you-want approach to its new service. Users can choose from four standard pricing options, or enter how much they want to pay for the service. They can also choose, via sliding scale, how much of that payment they want to go to Disconnect and how much they want to go to charity.
At this point, Disconnect supports four different charities, like ProPublica, The Center for Democracy & Technology and The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, with plans to support more going forward. Users can pay by credit card or test the service out for themselves before paying. All in all, this a la carte, flexible pricing model gives the startup a better chance and monetizing without detracting from the user experience, making it, I’d argue, that much more appealing for those who might be on the fence about using it in the first place.
Disconnect 2 is currently available as browser extension for Chrome and Firefox, while the company’s other apps (like Facebook Disconnect) are available for Chrome, Firefox and Safari.
For more, find the startup at home here.