Dear @WashingtonPost

This is wrong:

Because I’m not blocking ads. I’m blocking tracking.

In fact I welcome ads—especially ones that sponsor The Washington Post and other fine publishers. I’ll also be glad to subscribe to the Post once it stops trying to track me off their site. Same goes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other papers I value and to which I no longer subscribe.

Right now Privacy Badger protects me from 20 and 35 potential trackers at those papers’ sites, in addition to the 19 it finds at the Post. Most of those trackers are for stalking readers like marked animals, so their eyeballs can be shot by “relevant,” “interest-based” and “interactive” ads they would never request if they had much choice about it—and in fact have already voted against with ad blocking, which by 2015 was already the biggest boycott in world history. As I point out in that link (and Don Marti did earlier in DCN), there was in that time frame a high correlation between interest in blocking ads and interest (surely by the ad industry) in retargeting, which is the most obvious evidence to people that they are being tracked. See here:

Tracking-based ads, generally called adtech, do not sponsor publications. They use publications as holding pens in which human cattle can be injected with uninvited and unwelcome tracking files (generally called cookies) so their tracked eyeballs can be shot, wherever they might show up, with ads aimed by whatever surveillance data has been gleaned from those eyeballs’ travels about the Net.

Real advertising—the kind that makes brands and sponsors publications—doesn’t track people. Instead it is addressed to whole populations. In doing so it sponsors the media it uses, and testifies to those media’s native worth. Tracking-based ads can’t and don’t do that.

That tracking-based ads pay, and are normative in the extreme, does not make right the Post‘s participation in the practice. Nor does it make correct the bad thinking (and reporting!) behind notices such as the one above.

Let’s also be clear about two myths spread by the “interactive” (aka “relevant” and “interest-based”) advertising business:

  1. That the best online advertising is also the most targeted—and “behavioral” as well, meaning informed by knowledge about an individual, typically gathered by tracking. This is not the kind of advertising that made Madison Avenue, that created nearly every brand you can name, and that has sponsored publishers and other media for the duration. Instead it is direct marketing, aka direct response marketing. Both of those labels are euphemistic re-brandings that the direct mail business gave itself after the world started calling it junk mail. Sure, much (or most) of the paid messages we see online are called advertising, and look like advertising; but as long as they want to get personal, they’re direct marketing.
  2. That tracking-based advertising (direct marketing by another name) is the business model of the “free” Internet. In fact the Internet at its base is as free as gravity and sunlight, and floats all business boats, whether based on advertising or not.

Getting the world to mistake direct marketing for real advertising is one of the great magic tricks of all time: a world record for misdirection in business. To help explain the difference, I wrote Separating Advertising’s Wheat From Chaff, the most quoted line from which is “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.” Alas, the same is true for the business offices of the Post and every other publisher that depends on tracking. They ceased selling their pages as spaces for sponsors and turned those spaces over to data vampires living off the blood of readers’ personal data.

There is a side for those publishers to take on this thing, and it’s not with the tracking-based advertising business. It is with their own moral backbone, and with the readers who still keep faith in it.

If any reporter (e.g.@CraigTimberg @izzadwoskin@nakashimae ‏and @TonyRomm) wants to talk to me about this, write me at doc at searls.com or DM me here on Twitter.* Thanks.

Bonus link (and metaphor)

*So far, silence. But hey: I know I’m asking journalists to grab a third rail here. And it’s one that needs to be grabbed. There might even be a Pulitzer for whoever grabs it. Because the story is that big, and it’s not being told, at least not by any of the big pubs. The New York TimesPrivacy Project has lots of great stuff, but none that grabs the third rail. The closest the Times has come is You’re not alone when you’re on Google, by Jennifer Senior (@JenSeniorNY). In it she says “your newspaper” (alas, not this one) is among the culprits. But it’s a step. We need more of those. (How about it, @cwarzel?)

[Later…] We actually have a great model for how the third rail might be grabbed, because The Wall Street Journal wrestled it mightily with the What They Know series, which ran from 2010 to 2012. For most of the years after that, the whole series, which was led by Julia Angwin and based on lots of great research, was available on the Web for everybody at http://wsj.com/wtk. But that’s a 404 now. If you want to see a directory of the earliest pieces, I list them in a July 2010 blog post titled The Data Bubble. That post begins,

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

Alas, the tide did not turn. It kept coming in and getting deeper. And now we’re drowning under it.

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