Law in the Internet Society

Acceptable Advertising

-- By HumzaD - 03 Nov 2015

Fed up with annoying, ugly, and obstructive online ads, I recently joined the ranks of the adblockers. Whether driven by privacy concerns or mere annoyance 198 million internet users used adblocking technology in 2015, up 41% from 2014. Publishers lost an estimated $22 billion because of the surge in adblocker usage. Those numbers are likely to rise in 2016 with the recent release of Apple’s iOS 9, which, for the first time, supports adblocking technology. While I enjoy the new uncluttered internet experience my adblocker offers, the surge in adblocker usage is an existential threat to the free content model on which the internet has subsisted.

Examining the merits of this model, I argue that (1) using adblockers does more harm than good, and (2) the ad industry has been presented an opportunity to overhaul both its business model and its treatment of its clients.

Adblockers Make the Internet Worse

The harm caused by adblockers is due to three main problems, one obvious, two less so. The obvious reason is that ads have paid for an internet where services are accessible by people who could not pay for those services. These services include search engines that bring an endless amount of information to the masses, thereby democratizing knowledge. They also include communication and social media platforms that connect billions of people around the world. Adblockers, and the stifling of ad revenue, threaten the the ability of providers to continue to offer these services without charging in some other way. At higher costs, these services would have struggled to garner the massive user bases that have helped them thrive.

Ad revenues have also given a soap box to mom-and-pop publishers. Ads allow these publishers to devote all their resources to improving the quality of their content, rather than worrying about subsistence, thereby allowing them to compete with the behemoths. While larger publishers are likely to generate revenue from alternative sources and continue to thrive, these smaller publishers will have a harder time in a society where we all free ride with adblockers. They would have to hope that they could raise enough through either subscriptions or Wikipedia-style donations, both options which would heighten the hurdles to getting their messages out.

The second problem with adblockers is that their use indirectly supports information controllers such as Apple. Apple’s recent endorsement of the technology was not benevolence, but rather its latest move in its war with Google, which is much more dependent on ads than is Apple. When online content ceases to generate ad revenue, providers will funnel through to new platforms such as free Apple apps, where ads are not blocked and where their content will make money.

The final problem with adblockers is that their use encourages extortion and a sort of advertising aristocracy. AdBlocker? Plus, owned by German Eyeo, is the most popular adblocking extension, downloaded over 300 million times. Although it blocks most ads, it creates a whitelist of “acceptable ads” that still make it through to a user who fails to opt out of receiving those ads. While the general standards for what ads are acceptable (e.g., not disruptive, transparent, etc.) can serve as a model for the ad industry, the company also accepts payment to add ads to the whitelist. The result so far has been enormous payments by companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google that privilege their ads and allow them to circumvent the adblocker, and thereby creating an advertising elite that can afford to part with a cut of its profits to preserve its ads.

Content Providers and the Advertising Industry Should Adapt

Internet users, tired of being lied to about where their data is being sent and of obnoxious reminders that half naked women in their zip code want to meet, have begun to protest through the use of adblockers. The online advertisers and content providers should view this onslaught of adblocker use not as a death sentence, but rather as a wake up call and an opportunity to respond to these pleas. This means revamping the online ad industry to both create ads that respect users and to give user the choice to opt out of ads altogether.

Ads that respect uses would be honest with their users, rather than trying to exploit and trick them the way most popup ads and clickbait does today. This honesty would include honesty about what information is being stored about the users, what is being done with that data, and with whom it is being shared. Honest ads should also be transparent about the fact that they are ads, and not other content.

Respectful ads also refrain from being obnoxious. As Eyeo’s manifesto on Acceptable Ads makes clear, this includes duties to: (1) not be annoying; (2) not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read; and (3) be effective without shouting at us. This means no more screaming videos with a hidden off button covering the story we want to read.

Finally, respectful ads are relevant. This means showing us things we are interested in. Ads can achieve this by advertising information relevant to the site they advertise on. It could also mean collecting user data to tailor. In order to respect users, it is crucial that advertisers maintain the utmost transparency in such data collection and in the presentation of tailored ads, fully disclosing to users why they are shown the ads they are shown. In practice, native advertising such as the type with which BuzzFeed? is experimenting could fit this model well, if advertisers stringently adhere to principles respecting their users.

This advertisement’s susceptibility to abuse and some users’ opposition to relinquishing their data necessitates the second requirement that all advertising be optional. Websites should always give users a realistic choice (beyond “don’t use this service”) to opt out of selling their information for otherwise free content. These users, on the other hand, should be willing to pay a couple of dollars to bypass ads to preserve their privacy.

I don't understand the point of the piece as revised. Whether one agrees with your arguments about the nature of writing for the Net or not (and I don't, I think they are completely meretricious), digital media are filterable, and people who want to remove advertisements from their information stream are perfectly capable of doing so, using whatever technology is most useful to them. (It would in this context have been useful if you had included some facts, as I suggested in the last round, rather than a product review of AdblockPlus. There are lots of ways of filtering ads before they ever reach the browser, so a description of how blocking works would have been productive for the reader.) So the actual outcome of the process isn't based on your personal opinion, and you haven't shown here why, whether we agree with you or not, it makes a difference. You may be entirely wrong about how the order of culture works in the Net, and I think you are, in which case all the pro-advertising arguments are junk. Or it may be that as people choose individually to remove the tracking bugs, the ads, the platform hooks and so on from what they read and watch, that the order of culture will collapse because only this constant stream of poison directed at the human mind made the culture "economically viable" to produce. Either way, however, your normative speculations, right or wrong, are merely predictions about the results of the changes under way. Is the point of the piece that these speculations are yours, and therefore important, or that there is something about the nature of your speculations that makes them important without regard to who is holding them? Either's fine, but the genre is surely different.


Webs Webs

r4 - 14 Feb 2016 - 16:26:20 - EbenMoglen
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM