Advocates of adtech—tracking-based advertising—are lately claiming that ad blocking is breaking the social contract. This is self-serving and delusional bullshit. Let me explain why.
In my browser, when I visit a page, I am requesting that page. I am not requesting stuff other than that page itself. This is what the hypertext protocol (http) provides.
(Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. They also scaffold the social contract.)
Likewise, when I visit a site (such as a seller) with a service on the Web, I am not requesting stuff other than what that site presents to me in text and graphics.
So, for example, when I go to some-publisher.com, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. And when I go to seller.com, I expect the browser to display the index page of the site — and, if I have some kind of relationship with that site, recognition that I’m a returning visitor or customer.
In neither of those cases do I expect tracking files, other than those required to remember state, which was the original purpose of Lou Montouli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. Now known as just “the cookie,” it is in ubiquitous use today. In Lou’s detailed history of that creation he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.”
Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world. This time I’ll use my sister as an example of a typical reader. She’s a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy, and organized in the way she interacts with what we generally call “content.”
When a newspaper arrives, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out all the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons that might interest her. Then she strips out sections that don’t interest her. The Travel section might go on one Sunday, the Sports section on another.
Then, when she reads the paper, she ignores most of the ads. One exception might be the magazine section, which tends to contain full-page brand ads by companies like Apple and Toyota. Those she might notice and like at some level. It all depends
My point is that she consciously blocks some ads and allows some others, some of which she pays attention to, but most of which she does not.
This kind of interaction is what the user expects the hypertext protocol (http) and good manners on the part of websites and services will provide. Websites that spy on users outside of their own domains (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple.
Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But they should be opt-in for users, not opt-out. Alas, that kind of tracking is a baby in the blocking bathwater. (The EFF’s Privacy Badger blocks many of these by default, and provides sliders for degrees of opting in or out of them.)
How did we get from the online world Lou Montouli sought to improve in ’94 and the one we have today? Check the metaphors for what we had and what we’ve lost.
Back in the mid-’90s we called the browser our car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, are privacy technologies. They give us ways of operating in the world that conceal our most private spaces — ones where others are not welcome, except by invititation.
But, thanks to Zuboff’s Laws, our browsers became infected with spyware. Here is what those laws say:
- Everything that can be automated will be automated.
- Everything that can be informated will be informated.
- Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.
Sure, some of adtech’s surveillance is meant to give us a “better advertising experience” or whatever. Buy that’s beside the main point: it breaks the social contract in both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. It gives us what none of us asked for and what most of us don’t want.
[Later…In the time between when I wrote this and now (23 February 2018), Shoshana completed a seven-year writing project which when complete became In the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: a magisterial book of commanding authority that also features a flattering blurb by yours truly on the back cover. Her laws have been massively proven, and the world is far worse for it. Our great shame in the meantime is that we’ve done jack shit to fix the problem. (And no, the new laws that have come along—GDPR in Europe and CCPR in California—have only made things worse.)]
A few years ago, we tried to send a message to publishers and advertisers with Do Not Track, but it was fought, mocked and ignored by those to whom it spoke.
Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we took actions that can’t be ignored, by installing ad and tracking blockers. In doing so we acted as free and independent agents, just as we do in the everyday world with our clothing, our shelter and our cars.
What we need next are ways for us to engage constructively with publishers, in alignment with well-understood social contracts long established in the everyday world, and embodied in the hypertext protocol.
Engagement will also give us scale. As I explain in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War,
Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.
But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.
The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.
If we leave fixing things up to publishers and the adtech industry, all of us will be given different prosthetic hands, each of which will interact in different ways that are not of our choosing and give us no scale. In fact that is what we already get with the DAA’s Ad Choices and Ghostery’s massive opt-out list. We see how well that worked.
The road to personal independence and engagement scale is a long one.
In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,
we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.
Except in 1999, when we wrote that, we didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew we would, sooner or later, as a native entitlement of the Net.
In The Data Bubble, I said,
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.
In fact it the tide didn’t turn, because we didn’t yet have the tools to turn it. The Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at http://wsj.com/wtk. The last entry is in 2013. They should fire it up again.
Because now, in late 2015, we have the first of those tools, with ad and tracking blockers.
But we have to do better. And by “we” I mean us human beings — and the developers working on our side for the good of everybody.
Note: This is the sixth post in a series covering online advertising, starting on 12 August. Here are the first five:
- Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff
- Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech
- Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business?
- If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them
- Debugging adtext assumptions
[Later… I have since put this series in a list titled People vs. Adtech that now contains 120 posts, essays and articles between 2008 and 2019. (23 February 2019)]
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