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Your Obligation to Online Advertisers

The IAB wants you to know that if you don’t let online advertisers follow you around when you’re surfing, then you’re scum, a criminal and probably a traitor to your country. At least, that would seem to be the thick of it from reading their latest in a series of diatribes against Mozilla published last Tuesday on their website under the heading “Has Mozilla Lost Its Values?”.

The article is mainly in response to Mozilla’s plans to disable third party cookies by default in Firefox. However, they also don’t like the Cookie Clearinghouse, which is odd since it would allow “first party” tracking cookies through the use of blacklists and whitelists, which would seem to be something that would help them.

IAB represents online advertisersIn case you don’t know, the IAB stands for Interactive Advertising Bureau. They’re the organization that represents the online advertising business. In other words, the IAB is to folks like Google what the NAB is to broadcasters or the AMA is to those practicing medicine. You can see some of their handy work right here on this page, as they’re the organization that sets the standard sizes for Internet ads. As you might imagine, the IAB doesn’t care much for Mozilla’s position that computer users should be in control of little things such as what cookies are allowed, or not.

Their arguments seem surreal, almost Orwellian. They seem to think we’re automatically being anti-business when we say we don’t want to be tracked or followed around when we’re online. Now, I’m a pretty dim light bulb, but I really think that what most of us mean when we say we don’t want to be tracked is merely that we don’t want to be tracked. We’re not making any kind of capitalism vs. socialism judgement at all, we just think some businesses need to adjust the way they operate–at least if they want to get our business.

But we’ve had this accusatory finger pointed at us before. Remember Ballmer claiming that we were communists because we used Linux, implying that to use open source software was somehow unpatriotic, perhaps even treasonable? He even convinced Howard Coble, a congressman from North Carolina where Red Hat calls home, to publicly call-out Linux as anti-American.

This is no different.

Or how about the record companies claiming we had no right to DRM free music. They got Microsoft on that bandwagon to the point where Redmond was incorporating DRM enforcement into their software, but even the proprietary angel Steve Jobs understood that pig wouldn’t fly and convinced the record companies that they might have a better chance of selling music if they quit acting as if music listeners were their enemies. Guess what? It worked. Surprised?

The IAB, like the RIAA, the Hollywood guys, Ballmer and all who have come before, make their arguments with misdirection and slight of hand:

“Seemingly benign, Mozilla’s ideology is weighted down with counter-historical presumptions. The entire marketing-media ecosystem has subsisted on purchase-behavior data and other forms of research being available without individuals’ consent. R.L. Polk & Co. receives automotive ownership data from some 240 sources, including state governments, auto manufacturers, and financing companies, to create profiles of nearly every vehicle on the road and the people driving them. This data has been central both to the health of the auto industry and to improvements in cars, driving, and auto safety over the years.”

This is classic apples and oranges. Old school offline companies like R.L. Polk merely collect data on transactions already made. When a sale of, let’s say, a Ford vehicle is made, tons of data becomes available to the industry that will help Ford and Ford dealerships (and even other companies like GM) understand the demographics of their fleet. Other than the information that goes on a credit score if the vehicle is financed, this is not particularly intrusive to the buyer. It also requires an action to initiate–you must buy something.

There are some similarities, just as apples and oranges hold being fruit in common. Part of the demographic information exchanged under this old “analog” system would be stuff like what zip code you live within, your age, your income. Just like with a tracking cookie, none of this will be connected with your name. Unlike with a tracking cookie, it won’t even be connected with an IP address.

Tracking cookies are initiated as soon as you visit a site that uses them. You don’t have to take an action to initiate them–just go online. After you visit a site that uses them, which is any site that runs ads from a major ad agency such as Google, then you’ll be followed everywhere you go after that.

The results of this tracking is clearly evident. Visit a site that sells women’s shoes, and immediately you start seeing shoe ads, even if you’re visiting a site for auto parts. Example, whenever I’m on FOSS Force I see tons of political ads, even though this is a tech site, because I’m in the habit of visiting political sites during the course of my surfing and Google knows my interests.

The online advertising folks want you to believe it’s somehow not American for you to refuse to give-up your right to privacy so they can make money. It’s bad for business and if your actions are bad for business, then you’re obviously not a patriot–you might even be a thief.

“Consider, for example, the role of commerce – the freedom to engage in which was a fundamental spark to the American Revolution. Although it may not be as apparent as when a customer enters a physical store, visiting a web site is a commercial act, during which a value exchange occurs. Consumers receive content, and in exchange are delivered advertising. The value of the delivered ad is currently calculated based on two essential points of data – where the ad is being delivered, and to whom. By blocking third-party cookies by default, Mozilla is turning off the anonymized but behaviorally relevant “who” signal, thereby reducing the value of most ads. The user effectively has been granted a right to engage in a commercial transaction without anyone knowing anything about that transaction, including the other party to the transaction. This social decision carries costs. By reducing the value of advertising, consumers and businesses will shoulder higher prices, in the form of more ads, more intrusively delivered. Or they will pay more for content. Or they will be asked for more explicitly personal information in return for the content.”

Sorry guys, but the American Revolution wasn’t fought for the freedom to make money nor was the Internet intended to be merely a cash cow for Madison Avenue.

You might think that I’m killing the goose that laid the golden egg since FOSS Force is a site supported by online advertising. Certainly I have very mixed feelings about applications like AdBlock, but I don’t think they’re criminal as does the IAB. I’d obviously rather they not be used. They cost our site money. We work hard supplying content, blah, blah, blah, you know the rest.

However, none of us here would ever support laws regulating or banning programs like AdBlock due to our belief in tech freedom. Your computer belongs to you, you should be able to install any application you want on it. If so many people start blocking ads to make advertising supported sites impossible, so be it. Another business model will have to be developed for content sites like this.

I feel that way and more when it comes to tracking. Some cookies are useful and necessary, for session control and such. Personally, I don’t mind being tracked by the likes of Google. But it should be my decision. I should have the right to opt-in. The onus shouldn’t be on me the user to opt-out.

Having tracking cookies disabled by default in a browser puts power in the hands of the user. It also means that online advertisers can’t take you for granted. They have to offer you an incentive to get you to allow them to follow you around.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

13 comments to Your Obligation to Online Advertisers

  • dick

    “Although it may not be as apparent as when a customer enters a physical store, visiting a web site is a commercial act, during which a value exchange occurs.”

    The balony that some people come up with boggles my mind! When I enter a bricks and morter shop, I only make a commercial transaction when I buy something. This is the same as entering a commercial web site like, say, Amazon. I do not make a commercial transaction when I enter the site, only when I buy.

    The phrase “during which a value exchange occurres” is carp. I look at what I want in the store/web site. They give me the opportunity to browse. I give them nothing. Bricks and morter store get nowt, web sites just take.

    The advertiser pays the advertising medium. Fine. But why follow to a site that has nothing to do with politics with political advertising?

    Sorry, another rant.

  • tracyanne

    quote::Sorry guys, but the American Revolution wasn’t fought for the freedom to make money::quote

    Actually yes it was. That was the whole point. That colonial companies and businesses be free of English interference. That was the message of the so called “Boston Tea party” That Colonial businesses not have to pay [exorbitant] taxes to the crown, and thereby make better profits

    quote::nor was the Internet intended to be merely a cash cow for Madison Avenue.::quote

    Correct, the original idea was to share information.

  • vagabondo

    Traceyanne,

    Sorry but you had better check the history, as apposed to the commonly recounted myth. The “Boston Tea Party” had little to do with the importation of European ideas of Liberté, Égalité & Fraternité. It seems to have been instigated by the Boston privateer/merchants to destroy the regular controlled price imports, so that they could keep the market for their high priced smuggled goods.

    More a case of the local heroin dealers burning down pharmacies that dispense methadone, than freedom fighters supporting the oppressed. Pretty much like the the way some present large corporations would rather use brute force to maintain their profits rather than risk a competitive market.

  • Pastychomper

    Let’s get to the point here. If advertisers want me to view their ads, it’s their job to make their ads worth vewing. If they want to track my web use, it’s up to them to persuade me to let them, just as it’s up to them to collect the data. If they want _me_ to do their job for them, such as by assuming reponsibility for giving them my data, let them offer me appropriate payment and I’ll be very happy to negotiate a contract.

    Until then, I will continue to use the Web access I’ve paid for, to view sites that are either free to view or worth paying to view, and I’ll let the site owners worry about how to cover their own costs.

  • alsocurious

    I realize that ads are paying for much web content that I do want but would never pay for myself. Without ads the web would be a poorer place.

    Where I am there is this one annoying ad that now and then comes on with a loud trumpet fanfare. Because of that I’m using the Adblock extension. However, it blocks out all ads.

    If the browser had a settings switch that allows me to turn off audio from ads then I’d happily remove the adblock extension.

    I can understand that advertisers are not happy with having to pay for ads that the website dispatches but the end user blocks.

    Why websites do not already have a mechanism in place to block content if ads are blocked is beyond me.

  • machiner

    Ba hahahahahaa. It’s always this way, isn’t it? It starts on the playground when that pissy self-absorbed kid takes his ball because nobody wants to play by his stupid rules. Then, we get adults.

    Blocking ads since 1997 online. Bliss.

  • Roland

    We’ve seen where ISPs want to charge (say) Google when end users visit YouTube. It’s double-dipping. Advertisers: same thing. Bandwidth is still scarce for many people (me for instance). When advertisers pay my bandwidth bill and provide it in plenty, I’ll consider removing AdBlock. Until then, no way I’m letting those jerks hog my limited resources, that I pay for and they don’t. But hey, everyone wants a free ride when they can get it.

  • Actually, tracyanne, I can tell you are a product of today’s public education system. The American Revolution was NOT about business’ freedom to make money (as you put it). The entire reason for the Boston Tea Party was that the King raised taxes on tea… ONLY in America. However, there were no one in Parliament to represent America. This is taxation without representation. The American Revolution was fought to free us from the King’s rule so that this would not happen again.

    And I have a solution. EVERYONE at IAB should have a PI follow them who calls in on their cell phone and tells Company XYZ where they are. I can see it now: “John Doe just entered the public rest room in the Mall of America. He used Charmin to wipe. He used SoftSoap to wash his hands. He used the XCelerator hand dryer.”…… “John doe just entered Victoria’s Secret. He looked at sports bras and cotton underwear.” Doing something like this would point out the absurdity of what the IAB is doing.

  • nonya

    Ads use up the bandwidth that I pay for. The reason that many have turned to ad-blockers are the excessive numbers of ads, and the extremely annoying ads. And tracking is a violation of my privacy. It no one’s bleeping business what sites I choose to visit, just as its no one’s bleeping business where I go and what I do there. And I very much resent these IAB f*cks calling those who just want to keep their privacy and be free of extreme quanties of extremely annoying ads, criminals!

    When they pay my ISP to keep me connected, I might feel a little more charitable towards them, but not much! Advertising is a boil on the buttocks of the internet, and it needs to be lanced!! Web sites that rely on ads to survive will just have to find other ways to make money to pay the bills.

  • Super cookies lay hidden for a long time after you remove cookies from your browser, such as Firefox.

    Take Adobe Flash for example and Firefox.

    The directory ~/.macromedia will be present by default

    To defeat Adobe’s use of super cookies, remove the directory and set a link to it with:

    $cd && rm -rf .macromedia && ln -s /dev/null .macromedia

    Your home directory will now have:

    dietrich@dietrich-AOD260:~$ ls -l .macromedia
    lrwxrwxrwx 1 dietrich dietrich 9 Jul 24 10:57 .macromedia -> /dev/null

    and silenty send all of Flash persistent storage to /dev/null (computer heaven). ;)

    Be safe.

    Dietrich Schmitz
    Your Linux Advocate

  • Sonic Blast of Freedom

    @Dietrich Schmitz: I have a better idea: Dump Flash entirely. Adobe Flash is propritiary software. This reason alone should suffice to reject it altogether.
    Technically, Flash is not even neccessary anymore, since we have HTML5 and stuff now. The libre alternatives to Flash are there and they work, the webmasters just must adobt them.
    In the meanwhile, I use some userscripts to hack around websites which still insist on Flash. Luckily, most Flash-heavy websites are uninteresting to me anyways. :)
    A life without Flash is possible!

  • @Sonic
    That’s been the mantra, but, Chrome enjoys a relationship with Adobe where Flash continues to live on.

    (Users of Chromium, FF, etc, will only get security patches in version 11.2.x)

    Flash is ubiquitous and will continue to be around for many years. HTML5 was a newborn, is now a child, and has yet to reach puberty, much less adulthood.

    Dietrich Schmitz
    Your Linux Advocate

  • djohnston

    Just a shout out in Tracyanne’s defense. She’s from Australia and that’s where she was educated.