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The Web Without JavaScript

April 24, 2024

Today is 04-24. Because this sort of resembles the 424 Failed Dependency HTTP response status code, it has been proposed to call this the JS Naked Day in order to promote the ”Rule of Least Power” as described by the W3C in 2006.

JavaScript is very powerful and is essential for some types of websites to even function. However, it also has a tendency to be abused to the detriment of users. This may be in the form of e.g.

and possibly many others. Another risk of JavaScript is executing malicious code due to e.g. cross-site scripting, compromised domains or simply a malicious website. Even vulnerabilities like Meltdown and Spectre could potentially be exploited with JavaScript.

In general, I want to choose what software is run on my own device, so I have since long had an opt-in approach for enabling JavaScript if I feel that a website actually needs it and is unlikely to abuse it. This can be done with e.g. browser extensions such as NoScript or uMatrix. This approach has in my experience become increasingly painful over the last 10 years or so due to websites becoming increasingly dependent on JavaScript.

Blank pages

Many websites are completely unusable without JS and show nothing but a blank page, not just ones that are highly interactive but also websites that only serve basic content that is mostly text or images. Several of these website were completely usable a few years ago without JS while still offering more or less the same type of content.

Websites that choose to require JS just to serve simple content unnecessarily makes it less accessible by completely shutting out e.g. console web browsers and often crippling the experience for low-end devices such as mobile phones.

Examples of websites that are just blank include:

  • twitter.com

    Twitter has somehow become the global broadcast service for most organisations and officials and tweets are often linked to as a primary source. Unfortunately, since a few years back, when pressing a link to a tweet without JS you only get

    JavaScript is not available.

    We’ve detected that JavaScript is disabled in this browser. Please enable JavaScript or switch to a supported browser to continue using twitter.com. You can see a list of supported browsers in our Help Center.

    And after scrambling for a web browser capable of reading a tweet you are sometimes met with a login screen and are asked to create an account to continue.

  • youtube.com

    YouTube currently has more or less monopoly on online video hosting, it is pretty much an unavoidable part of today’s web. Trying to load any page without JS presents only a white page with empty placeholders.

    You could argue that YouTube’s main purpose is to show videos, and it is hard to implement a good video player without JS. However, just a few years ago, you were able to use most other parts of the website without JS. You could still use the search and list the videos of YouTube channels, and from there just open them in an external player. This does not work anymore, and you have to resort to an external search engine.

  • Gitlab

    GitLab is a source forge for hosting and discussing software projects. Unfortunately, it is not possible to read about projects, follow discussions or read wiki pages without JS. Loading a project page, e.g. postmarketOS, simply shows a blank page and an empty header.

  • imgur.com

    Imgur is an image hosting website that gained popularity from links from reddit. Its primary use is to host and show images but it has since a few years chosen to cripple this functionality. You are no longer able to view an image without JS, and if you enable JS you no longer only see the image you are interested in, but you are also shown other random images in full size. This has obviously been done for monetary reasons, simply hosting images for free is hard to make profitable, but it is unfortunate nonetheless.

  • crates.io

    Crates.io is the main and more or less only repository for libraries or “crates” for the Rust programming language. The primary purpose of its website is to show information about the crates hosted there. When entering the website without JS your are greeted with

    For full functionality of this site it is necessary to enable JavaScript.

    Here, “full functionality” seems to refer to any functionality beyond showing this text.

    This also has the side effect of making crates on crates.io inaccessible via a search engine. Instead, you are forced first go to crates.io, make sure JS is enabled, and then search for your crate there.

    These problems seems to be shared by many websites that choose to use some kind of single-page application framework.

This is, unfortunately, far from a complete list of web pages with this behavior.

Mostly unusable

Some websites still at least render something without JS but may fail to provide their main content. For example:

  • reddit.com

    Many software projects have communities on reddit, e.g. Linux, and web searches about specific technical topics sometimes lead to threads on reddit. Unfortunately, since a few years back, comments in threads are no longer readable at all without JS. Although, the old.reddit.com domain is still available for now and using the old interface which works fine without JS. Unfortunately, links rarely point to that domain.

  • github.com

    Github is currently by far the largest host of software projects. If you encounter a link to a project, it is most likely a link to a GitHub page. GitHub still mostly works without JS but is losing functionality. It is no longer possible to browse a source tree at all, for example that of the Linux kernel. You cannot enter directories and you cannot open any source files to read the source code. Neither can you get the git clone URL for SSH.

    Luckily, you are still able to read the README, issues, merge requests and wiki pages.

  • smhi.se

    SMHI is the Swedish Meterological and Hydrological Institute and their website is primarily used to read weather forecasts of the nearby region. The website’s about page states the following about JavaScript (translated to English):

    The website contains a few javascripts. They are for example used for presentation of maps in some of our weather and water services. None of these functions are critical for the website to function correctly.

    This sounds promising. Unfortunately, when pressing the “Weather” button, nothing happens. Actually, nothing happens when pressing any of the main category buttons. Relying on JS to implement navigation elements seems to be increasingly common in general.

    Accessing a direct link to a forecast, for e.g. Stockholm just shows nothing where the table of temperatures is supposed to be and there is no warning that JS is required.

    On the other hand, the Norwegian counterpart is very functional without JS: yr.no. They do have a friendly banner stating that not all features are available but pretty much everything except for the interactive map seems to work. It seems a lot snappier as well. Luckily, they have accurate forecasts for Sweden as well, e.g. Stockholm.

Common annoyances

Besides failing to provide the main content or render anything at all, there are many other common annoyances when disabling JS.

Redirects

Some websites choose to perform a redirect to a “nojs” page whenever a page is accessed without JS. One example is the login page for any of Microsoft’s websites. Nowadays you often can’t access your work or student email without using this specific page. A redirect is annoying because it prevents you from accessing the page after you actually have decided to enable JS. The web browser does not store the original address for redirects so the back button will not take you back there.

Non-removable popups

A lot of websites have annoying pop-ups that try to trick you into consenting for tracking cookies for advertising purposes. Some of these are impossible to close without JS. One offender of this was Stack Overflow previously. On desktop, it was a square in the lower left corner, but on mobile it covered around three thirds of the screen, giving you just a narrow window to read the actual content. Stack Overflow shows up on pretty much any search about any programming language or CLI command so this was quite annoying. Luckily, this has now been fixed such that you do not get the banner at all without JS. So now you are offered a better experience with JS disabled.

No images

For some reason, it seems to be quite common for news article websites to require JS just to load images. Some examples from various articles posted on HN recently include

Interestingly, images work fine for some of these when using reader mode.

Reduced content

Another common problem for news article websites is that some have chosen to fetch the majority of the article content using JS, showing you only a small part of the beginning of the article when loading without JS. This is presumably done to implement some form of paywall. Some examples of from various articles posted on HN recently include

Besides those, there are countless other annoyances, e.g. broken layouts, broken icons and many more.

Justified usage

Fortunately, there are also websites that utilize JavaScript only to improve the user experience.

A good example of this is Wikipedia and other MediaWiki websites. At least for reading, Wikipedia is fully functional without JS and JS is only used to e.g. show previews of footnotes and links.

Some websites use JavaScript to compensate for the lack of a server backend. This allows you to make the website completely static but still provide functionality that is typically performed by a backend – search for example, which is very useful. This is done by e.g.

There are also some websites that rightfully require JavaScript to function at all, for example

because the main functionality of these are impossible to achieve without JS.

Without JavaScript

Also, there are still plenty of websites that work very well without JavaScript. Most websites that only serve static content are still very usable, e.g. software documentation and web blogs.

Many forums also still work very well, e.g.

Some source hosting alternatives are a lot better than GitLab and GitHub with JS disabled:

There are also websites that provide alternative versions of the main site that are designed to fully work without JS, e.g.

These are especially nice when using a console web browser.

Conclusion

In summary, refraining from unconditionally run any code served by any websites you visit can be quite a cumbersome experience today. And to me it seems like the it has steadily been getting worse for a while. More and more websites choose to unnecessarily require JavaScript to serve basic content. However, looking back more than a decade, I would still say the current situation is a lot better than when a lot of functionality was implemented with Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight and Java applets.

Also, most websites with actual content that I am interested in work very well without JavaScript. And many good websites utilize JavaScript very well to only provide useful functionality.