“The real war is not on terror, but on what ‘terrifies’ the System: the unpredictable spanner-in-the-works known as individuality.”
— John Kendall Hawkins, in a review of the book Technocreep, by Tom Keenan
There may well come a time not long from now when the Internet has outlived its usefulness, when the attractiveness of its original free and open spirit, of the amazing possibilities of interconnectedness that galvanized its beginnings has rigidified into an environment overwhelmed by corporate and governmental interests.
The relentless pursuit of monetization and surveillance even now threaten to make the Internet a platform which mainly serves to legitimize all forms of corporate and governmental spying on its users. (For just one example, see this article on potential upcoming collusion between large tech companies such as Google and the NSA becoming enshrined in legislation.)
One aspect of this is the conflict between the increasingly intrusive nature of advertising on the web, and the measures taken to avoid it, as should be anybody’s right. Those measures themselves are increasingly coming under fire.
Many of us have become so annoyed by web page advertising that we’ve resorted to ad blockers of one kind or another to escape incessant pop-up ads, flashing banners, voice-overs and the rest. Beyond the more petty annoyances, the ads are avenues for potential malware delivery (including by surveillance agencies) and incessant corporate tracking which nullifies any pretensions to privacy we might once have had.
The Pursuit of Ad Blocking
So those of us who surf the net and object to the annoyance and worse of the ads, there are browser add-ons like, for example, Ad-Block Plus. This has become a very popular content filter to block ads, which is obtainable as an extension for most web browsers.
Unfortunately, this add-on is exhibiting similar symptoms for which it proclaims itself the cure — the makers of the add-on accept money from advertisers to be ‘white-listed’ (some advertisers say they’ve been extorted) and thus allow those ads to circumvent the block.
So many dedicated surfers of the web have now moved on to uBlock, which is free and open-source, as well as doing its job more efficiently.
These ad blockers and others are working well enough to be proclaimed a clear and present danger to the business models of many commercial sites. A recent ad-blocking report says that ad blocking grew by 41% in the last year, and supposedly cost web publishers $22 billion.
A group of publishers in Germany was so upset this year that they took Ad-Block to court and lost. Twice. There are other business groups also working towards making ad-blocking illegal. Although that doesn’t really seem technically feasible.
There are another group of extensions available that now are able to block most of the tracking that makes it possible, for instance, for Google to cater ads to you on the basis of your searches. All of the major, and not so major, commercial and governmental entities are busy building profiles on who surfs the web for what by the use of tracking cookies and similar means.
So now, on my Firefox browser, I now have the following extensions to thwart this activity: Ghostery, Blur (formerly Do Not Track Me – Abine), and Privacy Badger (which is intended to detect patterns of tracking). Of course I also rely on the extensions NoScript and KeyScrambler to block unwanted Java script and to encrypt keystrokes respectively. In addition, I have another add-on that deletes cookies when I leave a site. You may think me excessive, but I have a right not to be accosted.
As an experiment about tracking, let’s go to a genuinely informative website and see what one would imagine should be relatively innocuous — the Smithsonian. This is the site of the venerable, educational and scientific Smithsonian Institute and the publisher of what amounts to an online magazine.
There’s some good information here. But first I’ve got to temporarily allow many of about 50 scripts on the page with my handy NoScript options button. But there are so many ad-related scripts on this page that they come in waves. I allow one batch of scripts so I can click on various content, and then there appears another bunch I also temporarily allow. And then I have to do it again. (Although I am temporarily allowing scripts, my other blockers are taking care of the tracking cookies. I hope.)
Courtesy of Ghostery, let’s take a look at the trackers that I am blocking, which want to collect information about my presence and what I look at and sell it to whomever will buy as I browse the Smithsonian website.
- Rocket Fuel (or x+1):”Rocket Fuel delivers a leading programmatic media-buying platform at big data scale that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to improve marketing ROI. Rocket Fuel’s Advertising That LearnsTM technology empowers media teams to focus on strategy, not spreadsheets. Rocket Fuel was founded by online-advertising veterans and rocket scientists from NASA, Yahoo!, Salesforce.com, and DoubleClick.” Yikes. Rocket scientists are involved.
- ChartBeat: “Chartbeat provides real-time data analytics and performance alerts for your website.”
- Crazy Egg: “Crazy Egg shows you where people clicked on your site. Our servers will create a report that shows you the clicks on the pages you are tracking.”
- DataPoint Media: “DataPoint Media specializes in audience data management and exchange-traded media. Our solutions help publishers and media companies take control of their audience data, increase targeting capabilities and extend their reach across the ad exchanges.”
- Google Adwords: “No matter what your budget, you can display your ads on Google and our advertising network. Pay only if people click your ads.” Can’t see ’em; won’t click ’em.
- Google Tag Manager: “Google Tag Manager is free and easy, leaving more time and money to spend on your marketing campaigns.”
- Quantcast: “Quantcast measures and organizes the world’s audiences in real-time so advertisers can buy, sell and connect with the people who matter most to them.” Advertisers are busy buying and selling us.
- Scorecard Research Beacon: “… a leader in the Internet market research industry.”
- Sharethrough: “Sharethrough is the only video distribution technology company built from the ground-up to maximize sharing of brand video content.”
- Taboola: “Taboola’s service is used by publishers to recirculate their own traffic by generating personalized on-site video recommendations.” It’s all about the personalization.
Becoming a Commodity
Now it could be argued, and often is, that all this intrusiveness is the price of having content to look at on the internet. This is the argument of people with very short memories who don’t remember, or never knew, the web before the onslaught of commercialization. I have no sympathy for the idea that I am obligated to look at ads and be subjected to profiling and metadata marketing for the benefit of somebody’s business model. I resent being anybody’s commodity.
I take the same view as Marco Arment does in a blog post called “The Ethics of Modern Web Ad-Blocking.”
He writes, “People often argue that running ad-blocking software is violating an implied contract between the reader and the publisher: the publisher offers the page content to the reader for free, in exchange for the reader seeing the publisher’s ads. And that’s a nice, simple theory, but it’s a blurry line in reality.
“By that implied-contract theory, readers should not only permit their browsers to load the ads, but they should actually read each one, giving themselves a chance to develop an interest for the advertised product or service and maybe even click on it and make a purchase.”
This is the ethics of ridiculousness, as Arment points out. Web ads are something different than say a newspaper ad (which certainly has no ethical obligation on my part either). They are software, and designed without your consent to “run arbitrary code on your computer, which can (and usually does) collect and send data about you and your behavior back to the advertisers and publishers. And there’s so much consolidation amongst ad networks and analytics providers that they can easily track your behavior across multiple sites, building a creepily accurate and deep profile of your personal information and private business.”
The book referred to at the beginning of this post, Technocreep, by Tom Keenan, has the subtitle: “The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy.”
Thou Shalt Not Accost
One day not long ago in the car I overheard a portion of a radio interview with Keenan on his book. He commented that, increasingly, commercial and other interests feel entitled to use every empty vista, whether on the web, or in a stadium, or along the road to invade our mental, emotional and spiritual space. The web advertising practices take this tendency to new degrees of invasiveness.
But we have a right to not be accosted.