Monday, November 9, 2015

HBR: Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet

From the Harvard Business Review:
On September 29, 2015, Techdirt posted “You Can Now Turn Off Ads On Techdirt,” explaining all the reasons why they were granting readers the power to not see ads. Perhaps most telling was this line: “We’re going to allow you to decide how you best want to support this site and trust you to figure out the best way, rather than forcing the choice upon you.” But note who still holds the power, or agency, in this non-negotiation: it’s the publisher, not the reader.

Among the well over 100 comments that followed, nearly all were approving, though less of Techdirt’s policy than of the ad and tracking blockers readers already had in place. One wrote:

There’s lots of good reasons to block ads. Security… the datamining, and the idea I’m a walking wallet. I know how to look up what I need or want. But in today’s world, you can’t turn around and take a breath without someone trying to be in your face with a commercial. It’s overkill to the point of being sickening.
None of the ad companies want to talk about how they sabotaged ‘Do Not Track’ or how they ignore this and use your bandwidth for their greedy purposes. Ok, so now it’s my turn to deal with it; and I do. I’ll remove from view floating nav bars that eat up viewing space, icons and connections for facebook, google, twitter, and the rest that want to track you. Block dataminers that want to slow down your surfing and use your bandwidth to gather data.
Another wrote:

What’s the point of a user setting? Wouldn’t it be easier all around to just tell people who don’t want to see ads to install an ad blocker and let them know that you are OK with that?
For all its good intentions, Techdirt is still at the denial stage of grief over its own lost power — and over power gains by readers equipped with ad blockers.

This is but a small skirmish in the larger Adblock Wars. To a striking extent, readers (customers, consumers, citizens — i.e., you and I) have taken charge of our interactions with publishers and other vendors in the marketplace, and this trend will only continue — with paradigm-shifting results. Below, I sketch the outlines of this shift.

The numbers are telling. According to PageFair and Adobe’s 2015 Global Adblocking Report, “there are now 198 million active adblock users around the world.” Adblocking, it says, “grew by 41% globally in the last 12 months,” with annual growth rates of 48% in the U.S. and 82% in the U.K. By now the number must be north of 200 million worldwide. If this be a boycott, it’s surely the largest in human history. 
Yet ad blockers have been around almost as long as online advertising — certainly as long as we’ve had browser add-ons and extensions. So why has ad blocking become so popular, so fast? In a word, tracking.

When you go to a website, you’re looking for what publishers call “content,” which could be almost anything. I say “almost,” because one thing you’re not looking for is to be marked and tracked like an animal when you leave the site. But that’s what you get when you visit most advertising-supported commercial websites, whether you want it or not. And tracking has become steadily more prevalent as marketing’s appetite for “big data” and “personalized” ad messages has grown from hunger to gluttony.

This is exactly what Shoshana Zuboff’s three laws (first issued in the 1980s) predicted:

First, that everything that can be automated will be automated. Second, that everything that can be informated will be informated. And most important to us now, the third law: In the absence of countervailing restrictions and sanctions, every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention.

The FTC saw this happening already in 2007 and proposed “to create a national Do Not Track List similar to the national Do Not Call list.” In 2009, Christopher Soghoian, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and Sid Stamm, a privacy engineer at Mozilla, created a prototype Do Not Track add-on for Mozilla’s Firefox web browser. Soon Microsoft and Apple built support for Do Not Track in their Web browsers. Google followed in 2012....MORE