The tracking policies of the major online advertising networks are threatening the future of free content on the Internet.
Back in the late 1980s, cigarette smoking was permitted in supermarkets where I live, but there was a move afoot — a ballot issue I believe — to put an end to that. At the time I was doing a four hour daily stint at the local newstalk radio station, and the proposed ban was, of course, a major topic of on-air conversation with our listeners. Pretty much, most of our audience was against the ban, as we have a sizable and vocal minority — maybe a majority — of folks here in North Carolina who think they should be able to do whatever they like, whenever they like, without much regulation. There was something of a consensus among our listeners that smoking or no should be up to the store owners.
Officially, the supermarket chains were against the proposal as well, probably both to placate their smoking customers and because North Carolina shares a long history with tobacco and attacking tobacco in any way was akin to attacking mom’s apple pie. Also, in these parts, upper management tends to oppose any regulation as a knee jerk reaction. The supermarket chains’ official support of “smokers’ rights” was, of course, often cited by listeners when they’d call-in to offer their two cents worth.
During that time, I was talking to an acquaintance who managed a Harris Teeter store on the west side of town — a smoker, by the way — who told me that he hoped the ban would be put in place.
“We all do,” he confided.
He told me he had friends who managed stores for Kroger, Food Lion and some of the other chains.
“We’d all like to ban smoking in our stores,” he said. “It’s dirty, it stinks, and careless smokers are always putting burns in packaging or dropping ashes onto the produce. But if one of us makes the first move and establishes a no smoking policy, we’ll make customers mad and lose them to the other chains. If they just pass a law, then we’re good. Smoking won’t be allowed anywhere, so customers who smoke won’t feel compelled to move to the competition.”
That’s exactly how it is with Internet advertising and privacy issues.
We’re all tired of being followed around as we travel on the web. Advertisers know this, and some might even agree with us. Even if they do, however, there’s not much they can do about it. If a large ad network were to act on some better instinct and quit placing tracking cookies for the targeting of ads, their earnings would tank and they’d lose their shirts because they’d no longer be offering what the industry thinks it needs. Ad buyers would abandon them, and those who stay would demand greatly reduced rates for what is perceived as a less effective product.
Just as it was with in-store cigarette smoking in 1980s’ North Carolina, tracking users’ online behavior is the norm, an industry standard, and any company in the online ad business that abandons that standard loses to the competition. It’s that simple.
As Richard Stallman has pointed out, when it comes to advertising, those of us who buy and use products instead of making and selling them are the inventory the ad agencies are selling, not the customer, and we have no leverage. About the only tool available to us who wish to protect our privacy is to block ads, either through browser configurations or by using an ad blocking app.
Unfortunately, blocking ads comes with consequences, since doing so deprives websites offering free content of income they need to stay in business. Although users can whitelist and allow ads on sites they like, that’s the exception rather than the rule, as it defeats the purpose for users who are blocking ads over privacy issues.
At FOSS Force, somewhere around 50 percent of our tech savvy readership blocks our ads — a very high rate. Last week, Wired said that 20 percent of its visitors use ad blocking software, which it says is costing the site so much that it’s going to quit allowing ad blocking visitors to see its content unless they either whitelist the site or buy a $1 a week subscription to view Wired ad-free.
In a blog post on Friday, tech writer Jim Lynch agreed, and although expressing reservations about denying access to ad blocking visitors, thought Wired’s plan “a very good idea.” I agree.
Although FOSS Force doesn’t deny access to ad blocking visitors and never will, we’ve otherwise taken a similar approach to Wired. About a month ago we began asking visitors blocking ads to make a $10 contribution through our Indiegogo campaign to help compensate for the revenue that ad blocking costs us, and on January 26 we began a membership program that, among other things, offers members ad-free viewing in exchange for a $25 contribution.
Steps like these, however, wouldn’t be necessary if not for the bad behavior of the dominant online advertising networks, which advertising supported websites have little choice but to use. There are alternatives, but they tend to pay in pennies instead of dollars.
Hardly anybody likes ads, but I’m confident that most people understand the important role advertising plays in keeping free content free. It’s privacy and security concerns, as well as abuse by sites that are all but unusable due to ads that pop up every time the cursor is moved, that drive users to block ads en masse instead of using ad blocking software as a tool to remove ads from sites that either overuse advertising or display ads from questionable sources, which can be a security concern.
The only way to protect Internet privacy while keeping free Internet content free is through judicious regulation, which doesn’t appear to be in the works. There shouldn’t be an out-and-out ban; some same site tracking is necessary for purposes such as session control and users should have the right to allow themselves to be tracked if they like, as long as the process is opt-in, and with no sneaky tricks.
Even without tracking, advertisers will still be able to target ads — the old fashioned way and how Google got its start, through keyword matching. An article on this site about cloud computing, for example, might show ads on that article’s page for cloud services, or an article on Wired on cell phones might show ads for Apple’s latest and greatest iPhone. The big difference would be, the ads wouldn’t follow users around after they move on.
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