Law in the Internet Society

Online Advertisement, Privacy, and Journalism

-- By KjLim - 13 Nov 2017


The purpose of this post is to discuss the problems of today's online advertisement and consequences of the increasing popularity of ad blocking software. I will first discuss why online advertisement has become more problematic in the recent days, focusing on its "tracking" practice; I will then discuss how ad blocking software has accordingly gained popularity and native advertisements that circumvent ad-blockers are creating problems. I feel this is an important current issue that has far-reaching implications for privacy and Internet surveillance practices that permeate today’s society.

What's Wrong with Today's Online Ads? Tracking.

Online advertisement has been around for a while. But in my view it recently has become much more problematic than before, and the biggest culprit is the growing use of website visitor tracking. Website visitor tracking is a practice of tracking/monitoring website visitor’s online activities (often even when they leave the site) to create “big data” for advertisers who then use the data to provide “personalized” ads to web visitors. This practice has apparently become prevalent as big data analysis is now a buzzword that attracts advertisers who are looking to exploit the ever-increasing online markets (it is reported that internet advertising revenues in the U.S. has exceeded those of cable television and of broadcast television).

Despite the ironic reality that the click-through rate on such banner ads is reported to be less than 0.1%, more and more websites – including social network services such as Facebook that has access to more personal information than others – are using user tracking. And this is troubling, to say the least. First, this practice clearly is (or should be considered) a form of impermissible Internet surveillance that permeates today’s society because it is generally done without the knowledge/consent of the users, most of who are not tech-savvy and do not understand the consequences of allowing these websites, especially tech giants like Facebook/Google, to monitor their activities. I am also concerned that the prevalence of this tracking practice reflects today’s business leaders’ insensitivity to and us ordinary persons’ ignorance of the importance of privacy and far-reaching implications of surrendering it to big corporations with technology and money that can then use such information to subtly control our lives in troubling ways.

Ad-blockers Fight Back

Fortunately, there has been some successful effort to fight back: ad-blockers that selectively download material when visiting a website, usually excluding advertisements and tracking components. According to Adobe’s 2015 Global Adblocking Report, “there are now 198 million active adblock users around the world … [adblocking] grew by 41% globally in the last 12 months”. A Harvard Business Review article called it “the largest [boycott] in human history”. Ad-blockers have become so popular that the popularity is even sparking ethical discussions on whether it is morally wrong to deprive web publishers of means/opportunities to earn money, which could lead to the decline of journalism in general.

Native Ads and Problems

Against this backdrop, the issue I would like to discuss here is the growing prevalence of native ads that more and more online advertisers are starting to use in response to ad-blockers because they can circumvent the blockers. Native ads are forms of advertisement that match the online platforms’ form and function so as to look like the platform’s content, and some examples can be found here.

Two main problems of native ads I think are: first, it is often difficult for many website users (who I assume are not tech-savvy) to tell if some content is in fact a native ad, creating misleading, if not deceitful, impressions of products the ad is promoting. Second, perhaps more importantly, when it is difficult to tell the difference between journalism and advertisement (because many native ads operate on online publishers websites), it could eventually erode the independence of journalism and, if combined with tracking, the Internet would no longer be a place for content democratization and free exchange of ideas.

In response to criticisms against native advertisements, Meredith Levien, the New York Times’ Executive Vice President for Advertising, insists that “good native advertising respects the independence and the sanctity of journalism…[and] is just not meant to be trickery. It’s meant to be publisher sharing its storytelling tools with a marketer”. She also argues that, because the marketers are held to the same standard consumers hold publishers to (transparency, accountability, etc), native ads can add value to rather than undermine journalism.

I find this incredibly difficult to believe. We already suspect and have some evidence research articles sponsored by companies can bias conclusions in favor of the sponsoring companies’ products, and it is difficult to think that something similar will not happen in journalism and native advertising. Even a 1999 article in the New York Times questioned the viability of maintaining journalism’s independence with the advent of online native ads, and that was almost 20 years ago when online advertisement was not heavily employing tracking and fewer people used the Internet for information gathering.

Concluding Remarks

I have mainly discussed the problems of online advertisements that create privacy issues and threaten the Internet’s (online publishers’) integrity, without discussing solutions. Honestly, I am not sure what solutions there are, especially considering that web publishers’ need to monetize their websites/content is also important; if they can’t do so, we will have fewer and fewer web publishers that can financially survive, threatening the notion of content democratization championed by the web. Nonetheless, a better understanding of the problems should help us find solutions as we move forward.

I think the draft is rather 2012. Your way of describing the extent of data-gathering, the focus on banner advertising and "native" advertising, which is just another cycle being turned, the absence of analysis of the way the placement platforms at Google and Facebook (which are now garnering between them 99% of all the new digital advertising spending in the world outside China)---all seems ill-designed to give the reader a current view of the situation.

Why are we discussing advertising-supported media content, instead of discussing how businesses that are product and services businesses either succeed or fail depending on how the advertising platforms treat them? Why is "ad-blocking" even an issue, given that digital media are intrinsically filterable, and whatever I use to read data from webservers isn't necessarily a "browser" made by an advertising company? Serving the ads off the same address that serves me parts of the data stream I want (which is what "native advertising" now really means) defeats only primitive forms of ad-blocking, which are not how sensible people protect themselves both against the monitoring and against the attention-distortion at the same time. (The NY Times does various things to interfere with my reading of the news they publish, some of which might be considered advertising and other bits might be thought of as "content," but if I don't want them I can be filtering them out equally. Ads are really just anything I don't want, as spam is really just email I don't want to read. In both cases, computers are ideally skilled at helping me remove what I don't want to see.)

I think the best route to improvement is to broaden the discussion of advertising, from media-content decoration to the activities of the platforms themselves, and to look more closely at privacy technologies beyond in-browser ad-blocking.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules for preference declarations. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of these lines. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated ALLOWTOPICVIEW list.


Webs Webs

r3 - 04 Dec 2017 - 22:32:48 - 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