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February 15th, 2016

Why Internet Advertising Needs to Be Regulated

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.

Advertising Mad Man fallingOfficially, 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.

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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.

We’re currently in the midst of our 2016 Indiegogo fundraising drive. Your support is crucial. Won’t you please visit our fundraising page and make a contribution to support FOSS Force?

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. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

19 comments to Why Internet Advertising Needs to Be Regulated

  • mike

    Advertising (in all its forms, online and off) is a form of pollution. It clutters up the web, our roadways and towns, and pollutes our night skies.

    Not much else needs to be said on the matter.

  • The subscription model isn’t really any better for privacy though. It may not expose data to anyone other than the site in question (which now needs me to login or equivalent), but there’s still a form of tracking happening that the user may not want.

  • Alex

    Although I don’t like ads (I’m using an adblocker for many years) I totally understand publishers.

    I’d take the adblocker down if ad networks wouldn’t track and would only distribute static ads (no java script etc). Also ads must not be disruptive.

    Using an adblocker is pure self defense not just against tracking and ads but also against malware. Yes it is that bad!

    The ad networks are out of control with what they do and engage in highly unethical practices. I doubt they will change. It’s unfortunate that the publishers have to suffer because of them.

    Whitelisting doesn’t work for me. You would still being tracked and still have the possibility of drive by exploits. No thanks.

  • When one buys a newspaper, magazine, or any like printed publication, there are advertisements. Fine. I can live with that. There is no need to look at them.
    Injecting java script into someone’s web page to load a tracking/advert page is easy. Far easier than giving FossForce a picture, some blurb, and a bit of html code to insert in the article, page, etc.
    What I, and I suspect most web users do not like is the “being sent to another site to download an advert/popup” after a cookie has tracked that “this bloke is looking for a hard drive”, without asking permission. All supposedly for quotes again “a better user experience”. (Oh, how I hate that phrase).
    FossForce, being computer orientated, I could cope with computer related adverts, IF they were embedded into the page, as with a newspaper.
    Ask you advertisers if that would be possible, and begin an experiment. At the very least, advertisers would have proof that their adds were being displayed.

  • nonya

    I totally agree with Alex. Richard has some good points too. But in my view, ALL tracking of people’s web browsing MUST STOP! All selling or giving out of user information MUST STOP as well! Targeted advertising MUST STOP altogether! Ads on web pages that are like the printed ad in a magazine (no flashing colors etc…) might be acceptable as long as they are directly related to the content of the article or magazine. That is the only way that I could find any ads on the web acceptable.

    The bottom line is that I paid for my computer, I pay for my (capped) bandwidth. Therefore, I am the only one that gets to have any say in what is downloaded with my bandwidth and displayed on my computer! As for advertisers calling those of us who block ads criminals (along with the authors of ad-blocking software), I say that the advertisers themselves are the criminals, stealing private information, trying to steal our bandwidth, our valuable time and even more valuable attention. My time and attention are too valuable to be wasted looking at ads for crap that I neither want nor need!

  • Timon19

    Liberty for me, not thee, eh?

    Freedom of speech (or association, or whatever) mean nothing if only speech (or associations, etc.) that is ratified by some committee is allowed in what amounts to a network of private/privately-managed spaces.

    Prior restraint leads to all sorts of unintended consequences. Careful what you wish for.

  • Mike

    Surprisingly, I agree with Timon19. We don’t need regulation.

    What we need is a browser manufacturer to step up.

    They need to respect user rights enough to allow users COMPLETE control over their experience and they need to make the gutsy move to provide SAFE AND SANE DEFAULTS that protect users by disabling javascript except on an opt-in basis and prevent sites from loading and running javascript from other sites.

    That would force web designers to stop their current insanity of running arbitrary code from dozens of domains in a lazy effort to include various third-party libraries into their sites.

  • Timon19

    Mike,

    I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t such a thing (or is there?). At the very least, some segment of the community that identifies and maintains a database of bad actors (or alternatively, good actors), like AdBlock Plus, but on steroids, whose product is integrated into a browser by default.

  • “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.”

    I love that last paragraph. It’s so simple and should work just fine, it’s a great argument. Of course the ad companies would complain that it doesn’t “allow us to provide as good a user experience”. Ugh.

    As an owner of a content creating website, albeit a fairly small one. it’s a dilemma I face quite often. I use AdSense on my site and often feel fairly guilty for doing so. At the same time, the pennies it brings in, while currently only enough to really pay for the site hosting and domain, is useful. I don’t begrudge those who use ad-blockers because I’d do the same thing myself, though I do whitelist particular sites (while being well aware I’m then still sacrificing some privacy that way).

    I hope to find a happy medium one day…

  • tracyanne

    I don’t have a problem with advertising if it comes directly from the same site/domain as the page I’m visiting.

    In fact I’ve written sites that do exactly that, where the site owner gets paid for hosting, and displaying, the ads. It worked out quite well for all concerned (including the person accessing the page), and the ads were neither intrusive, nor unrelated to the purpose of the site.

  • Eddie G.

    Coming from a strictly user-experience perspective I’ll tell y’all a little story: A story about me getting a tablet as a gift, and loving it. Mind you it came with stock everything..(Android…Web Browser etc.) and I didn’t mind that it was a plain-vanilla tablet. And then one day, I was enjoying my tablet, browsing sites such as this and others more relevant to learning how to become an RHCSA Certified Admin. Then it happened. I don’t know how, or why, but the screen I was reading disappeared! In its stead was a FULL SCREEN AD, that…..as far as I could see was UN-CLOSEABLE! I turned the tab lengthwise, and o… the ad..got longer…but there was STILL no way to CLOSE the darn thing! I eventually had to just shut down the tab, and restart it. After doing so I figured that was the end of the nightmare. I was wrong. I didn’t go back to the sites I was reading earlier, instead I was now on the TigerDirect site, comparing prices between their inventory and NewEgg’s then ANOTHER full screen ad popped up!…and even though this time there WAS a way to close it? there were THREE MORE behind the one I closed. So After that experience? I will use AdBlocker until the wheels fall off of it. I don’t want ads. I don’t NEED ads, when I’m “looking” for a particular piece of software?…or hardware?..or just looking to read articles? then that’s ALL I ant to do, not play “Dodgeball” with a million different advertisments within a 2 hour time-frame. So “I Apologize” to all the advertisers out there who are losing precious revenue over my decision. If you happen to be a company that’s selling something I’m looking for? Then 9 times out of ten you’ll get my business. but since I’m not looking to “flip houses easily online”…nor do I need to “shed pounds in days with the latest and greatest fat-burning pill”….NOR am I in the market for a “Certified Pre-Owned” BMW? then you will NOT infect my web-browsing experience with your tripe. And A sincere and deeply heart-felt apology to the members / owners of FOSS Force, I would unblock your site but I’m not inclined to be tracked or bothered at ANY time when I’m online. I read the comment of one of your readers above and you know what?…my time really IS valuable, and I can’t spend an extra minute of any of it playing “shuck & jive” with ads….rest assured I’ll soon be donating to your cause….(since I feel a bit guilty!) But I’m not going to expose myself its just not worth it.

  • tracyanne

    This site http://healthypeople.com.au/ was originally developed by myself, since I retired another developer has taken it over, but all the advertising still adheres to the rules I worked out with the owner.

    The advertising is all hoated by the site
    The advertising is unobtrusive
    It is relevant to the purpose of the site
    It is all “below the fold”

    That is advertising I can live with.

  • tracyanne

    This site http://healthypeople.com.au/ was originally developed by myself, since I retired another developer has taken it over, but all the advertising still adheres to the rules I worked out with the owner.

    The advertising is all hosted by the site
    The advertising is unobtrusive
    It is relevant to the purpose of the site
    It is all “below the fold”

    That is advertising I can live with.

  • Bernardo Verda

    I have subscriptions for a few, favorite sites*.

    For the rest, I don’t block ads, per se (Double-Click excepted) but I do, using Ghostery, block trackers (“analytics”, beacons, most widgets, etc) of any sort. I’m willing to accept that the advertising “pays the freight” — and that strikes me as a fair deal (who knows, I might even, on occasion, even be interested enough to click one).

    I consider seeing ads (well-behaved ones, at least) a perfectly reasonable quid pro quo for being able to see the content — but I consider snooping on my habits to be simply unacceptable.

    I also consider it a rather revealing “quirk”, that blocking only “analytics” and “beacons” ends up blocking most advertisements, as well. If refusing to accept “tracking” means that I can’t see the content… well, that’s just too bad; I can, and will, go elsewhere — there’s already more worthwhile content online than I actually have time for.

    – – –

    *PS: just made a small contribution to FOSS Force today, as well)

    PPS: I feel almost as strongly about sites demanding my email before letting me post — but I realize that this is often a necessity foisted upon web-sites by the trolls and spammers.

  • @Bernardo First, let me personally thank you for you contribution.

    And about your last point, you’re 100% correct. We would like nothing better than to let our readers comment without having to jump through the hoops of supplying an email address and going through a Captcha. However, experience has taught us that if we don’t, we’re subjected to tons of spammer, trolls and worse — and that unpleasant for all of us.

  • tracyanne

    I tried to make a donation, I have no idea if it went through. the page sat their with a message saying processing until I had to pack up the computer and go out. I suspect it timed out after that.

  • tracyanne, that is what I was trying to say. I can live with that type of advertising. Nice to know it can be done.

  • @tracyanne Thanks for wanting to make a contribution. We need it and we appreciate it. I checked the Indiegogo records and it looks as if your payment did not go through. The only two contributions in the last couple of days were both associated with guy names. I you still wish to contribute, please try again. Perhaps Indiegogo will work like the well oiled machine they claim it to be this time. 🙂

  • tracyanne

    @Richard, it’s not difficult to implement, including tracking clicks, and billing the advertiser (it’s only a few lines of code plus a database table), but it does require a little bit of extra work on the site owner’s part. They have to proactively select the adverts they want, or sell the advertising space themselves (which is what HealthyPeople do). I have a feeling most site owners can’t be bothered taking the time to ensure the advertising is relevant, or sell the space themselves.