Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Technological Threats to Adblocking and Cultural Threats from It

The primary motivation of most spying on the Internet is to send more effective advertisements to the people who are being spied on. For that reason, one way to discourage spying, or at least reduce its profitability, is to use an adblocker to disable advertisements on your web browser. PageFair, a company that markets technologies opposed to adblocking, estimated in mid-to-late 2015 that businesses would lose $22 billion by the end of that year, and that the global cost to businesses of adblocking would be over $41 billion in 2016. While there is reason to be skeptical of these numbers, the vocal opposition of publishers to the widespread use of adblockers and the business practices of the companies that create and maintain them is evidence of the fact that they are greatly affecting companies.

If uninterrupted, the increasing use of adblockers has the power to endanger the business model of many “content producers” on the web. Because the dominant adblockers (namely Adblock and Adblock Plus) are free software, and because there are few network effects in the adblocking business, there is little risk that these companies will become corrupted in a way that makes the technology as a whole less useful to consumers and less dangerous to business models premised on targeted advertising. When Adblock Plus changed its default setting such that users of the program were exposed to “whitelisted” ads that were deemed sufficiently non-intrusive, several companies quickly popped up with the previous a default setting that blocked all advertisements. Moreover, a major factor limiting the widespread adoption of certain privacy technologies is that they are frequently difficult to use for the layperson. Adblockers, on the other hand, are so easy to use and use properly that there is essentially no limit on the set of people who might adopt them. Indeed, there are now adblocking extensions for Internet Explorer and Safari.

This truly “disruptive” potential of adblockers has led many companies to adopt anti-adblocking technologies in order to stave drops in revenue. So far there have been two general types of technological opposition to adblockers. These methods detects the presence of an adblocking extension, and then displays a pop-up ad that blocks the adblocker from viewing the content. For example, when you attempt to view on article on when you have Adblock Plus enabled, a display ad will pop up over the content requiring you to leave the site, pay a subscription fee, or “whitelist” the site, which disables the adblocker. The other certainly more devious strategy has been to bypass adblockers entirely and to present ads to users of adblockers by using bypass proxies and constantly changing the domain names of the proxies such that it is impossible for adblocking developers to track from where ads are being sent.

Of course, adblocking software became popular for a reason, so it was not surprising that the spread of anti-adblocking software to sites like Wired and the Guardian would lead to the creation of anti-anti-adblocking software, such as Anti-Adblock Killer. It is not clear what will be the end to this coevolutionary process of the development of blocking and unblocking technologies, and if there is an end to the process, it is not clear whether it will be on the side of the adblockers or on the side of the advertisers. Indeed, there is some possibility that the conflict will end in some form of compromise. Adblock Plus has now made a few conciliatory moves to enable publishers to make back some of the money lost to businesses from adblocking, while also tying its own fate as a commercial enterprise to the success of those initiatives by taking a cut out of whatever the publisher makes. In addition to some smaller measures, the largest example of this phenomena is the aforementioned Acceptable Ads policy, whereby large publishers (defined in terms of number of ads blocked by software) can pay Eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, approximately 30% of their revenue from previously blocked ads while also conforming these whitelisted ads to certain standards of non-intrusiveness.

The ideal outcome of the battle between adblockers and publishers depends on the cultural and economic implications that adblockers will likely have. The benefits to the widespread use of adblockers are patent, and have largely been stated thus far. They enable users to control their own experience of the web, and they enable them to browse free from unconsented-to distraction, while also removing incentives for publishers and advertisers to surveil the web. On the other hand many publishers have publicly appealed to users of adblockers to disable them on sites they wish to support. The plight of journalists who write the articles you love being fired is indeed sympathetic, but the world would certainly be a much worse place if people stopped using an excellent technology every time somebody lost a job because of that technology. The important issue is not whether people will lose jobs because of adblockers, but whether we will be losing a public good that was financed by means of advertisements and that will have no other means of being financed in the absence of the types of advertisements currently being blocked. The concern is that there exists certain original reporting that will only be produced if someone is able to make enough money doing it to quit his day job to make it. While we certainly face the risk that we could lose original and powerful reporting because of adblocking, there is an argument that we have too much information in society as it is. More importantly, the conjectural value of whatever public good we might lose because of adblocking does not outweigh the benefit that users receive by having to power to control over their own attention.

This draft is pretty good given the conditions of its generation, but it suffers from last-minute research and composition. The assumption that an ad blocker is always a browser add-on, and that by querying the browser configuration fingerprint a website can determine whether ads are blocked is incorrect. The browser is actually a poor place to perform the task of reshaping web traffic. That's performed for many other purposes (load balancing, caching, security) by proxies in every network. The TSPs and other intermediaries also perform "ad injection," and if the final proxy in the chain (something like privoxy) is running either in the user's first-mile router, of even on localhost, that proxy will be able to inject ad-lessness with the same ease that everybody else upstream has been (now futilely) trying to shape the user's ad experience.

So everyone's wifi routers and tunnels to mobile phones over untrusted networks should perform ad removal, cookie crunching, browser-fingerprint hiding, and other privacy facilitation. That, for example, is all undertaken by your router if your router is a FreedomBox? . The website can query your browser all it wants, but it won't ever complete the query, let alone learn you're removing ads, let alone be able to stop you. Breaking that mean breaking web proxies, which means every corporate net in the world stops working, which isn't going to happen. Of course, Chrome is not interested in helping you to see fewer ads. Browsers, all but one of the major examples of which are made by advertising platform companies, are a terrible bet for privacy architecture, even if everything one does on the Net is through a browser, which of course it isn't.

So far as "effect on culture" is concerned, anyone working in digital media knows that the advantage of digitization is that digital streams are trivial to filter. They might as well be unhappy about cascading style sheets.

So the draft would benefit both from corrections of factual approach and analytic harshness on the complaints of those who wants peoples' personal computers to work in ways the people themselves don't want, on the basis that culture requires unfreedom, or even just burdensome semi-compulsory distraction.

-- AlexanderGerten - 12 May 2016



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r2 - 12 May 2016 - 15:23:54 - EbenMoglen
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