Users: Please DoNotTrack me
AdTech+Publishers: Screw you
AdTech+Publishers: Please DoNotAdBlock me
Users: Screw you— Kontra (@counternotions) September 20, 2015
If you’ve been paying attention to tech news recently, you’ve heard about a solution (for iPhone owners, at least) to the problem of ads slowly taking over your mobile experience: ad-blocking has come to iOS. Peace, Purify, Crystal: all of these extensions hold out the promise of faster page loads, reduced data usage, and improved battery life – all thanks to Apple iOS 9’s new Content Blocking functionality for its mobile browser, Safari.
This sounds like great news. It is great news.
Unless you work in online tech or media:
If you hate advertising, don't read/view ad-supported media. Stop offloading your responsibility and follow through on your beliefs.— Jason Kottke (@jkottke) September 17, 2015
If those tweets and that headline look like a magnificent overreaction to you, take heart: you’re probably a human being. (Unlike the majority of online advertising audiences.)
The point isn’t that the ad industry is full of terrible people. It’s not. But it is really remarkable to see how quickly a slight destabilization of the existing balance of power – between ad tech and its target audience – has thrown some insiders into a tizzy of moralizing. A few facts that seem to have been forgotten:
Publishers and content producers, not Internet users at large, created the current environment of free content supported by ads. Before the Internet came along, consumers were generally accustomed to paying for content: via newspaper and magazine subscriptions, cable TV packages, and so on. The era of widespread freely available content didn’t occur by itself: content producers all bought into it.
This is not to paper over serious differences between, say, newspapers whose value is largely derived from monetizing their readership – both online and off – and cable TV channels like CNN who happily distributed free content online in order to cross-promote their Internet-independent revenue streams. Companies in the former category were, in large part, dragged into giving away free content online by companies in the latter category. Nevertheless, this wasn’t a choice forced on anyone by end users.
There’s an old saying that “If you can’t figure out the product being sold, you’re the product.” For years this has been the case for Internet users: ad tech companies have monetized, repackaged, and distributed user data at a truly massive scale. The ad industry argues this is a fair tradeoff, since users are now able to obtain free content all over the place. But it’s not a tradeoff in which users have ever had a meaningful say: companies are rarely fully transparent with users about the data they collect on them, opt-out schemes are difficult for casual users to understand and hopelessly fragmented anyway, and a reckoning of the value of all this data being extracted from users has never truly been attempted, never mind completed.
Ad tech advocates rightly claim that Apple is not acting altruistically in enabling a Content Blocking functionality. But this is a red herring: companies have a right to opportunistically appropriate populist causes (such as user privacy concerns) to elbow out their rivals, to the extent that it doesn’t venture into anticompetitive behavior. And in these cases, there’s equally nothing wrong with users exploiting a corporate arms race for their own advantage (by downloading ad-blocking extensions en masse), just as companies do.
This seems numbingly obvious, but it’s worth repeating anyway: there is no social contract, implicit or otherwise, between ad tech companies and Internet users. Users never agreed to be tracked, dissected, and prepackaged. They’ve never had a choice.
In fairness, only a subset of the online advertising sector has reacted to ad-blocking with vitriol. Many people, either within the industry or knowledgeable about it, take a more sensible approach. For example, Mathew Ingram, in a piece titled “Dear ad industry: Suing ad blockers and cutting off readers is not a great strategy,” marveled at the ferocity of some of the anti-ad-blocking crowd:
Let that sink in for a minute. Members of the IAB think it’s a good idea to try and convince 100 of the leading online publishers in the world to cut off anyone using an ad blocker, and not allow that user to see any of their content. The only problem with this idea, apparently, is that the odds of actually being able to pull it off are “slim.” But that’s not all. The IAB is also exploring the idea of suing ad-blocking software companies, according to Moore.
Along similar lines, Jason Kint, the CEO of Digital Content Next (a collective of online publishers), tweeted this:
AdTech reax to adblocking: 1) dispute data 2) discredit sources of data 3) bury heads 4) threaten lawsuit 5) whine http://t.co/hkdeT6niXl— Jason Kint (@jason_kint) September 4, 2015
The debate has ensnared even the ad-blocking creators themselves. The developer of Peace, Marco Arment, has since removed it from the App Store, citing ethical qualms: “Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt.”
But there’s a bit of irony here: Arment’s thesis, shared by many in online ad tech, is that ad-blockers should distinguish good ads from bad ones. But when companies such as Eyeo build hugely popular products like AdBlock Plus that explicitly allow a clearly defined category of “good” ads through, they’re broadly (and not unjustifiably) accused of extortion.
The lesson here is not that Eyeo is innocent, but that no method of distinguishing good ads from bad ones (as opposed to blocking all of them indiscriminately) is going to satisfy the ad tech industry – and most end users don’t care enough about seeing good ones to worry about the difference anyway.