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(Somebody280px-Do_not_disturb.svg on Quora asked, What is the social justification of privacy? adding, I am trying to ask about why individual privacy is important to society. Obviously it is preferable to individuals for a variety of reasons. But society seems to gain more from transparency. So, rather than leave my answer buried there, I decided to share it here as well.)

Society is comprised of individuals, and thick with practices and customs that respect individual needs. Privacy is one of those. Only those of us who live naked outdoors without clothing and shelter can do without privacy. The rest of us all have ways of expressing and guarding spaces we call “private” — and that others respect as well.

Private spaces are virtual as well as physical. Society would not exist without well-established norms for expressing and respecting each others’ boundaries. “Good fences make good neighbors,” says Robert Frost.

One would hardly ask to justify the need for privacy before the Internet came along; but it is a question now because the virtual world, like nature in the physical one, doesn’t come with privacy. By nature we are naked in both. The difference is that we’ve had many millennia to work out privacy in the physical world, and approximately two decades to do the same in the virtual one. That’s not enough time.

In the physical world we get privacy from clothing and shelter, plus respect for each others’ boundaries, which are established by mutual understandings of what’s private and what’s not. All of these are both complex and subtle. Clothing, for example, customarily covers what we (in English vernacular at least) call our “privates,” but also allow us selectively to expose parts of our bodies, in various ways and degrees, depending on social setting, weather and other conditions. Privacy in our sheltered spaces is also modulated by windows, doors, shutters, locks, blinds and curtains. How these signal intentions differs by culture and setting, but within each the signals are well understood, and boundaries are respected. Some of these are expressed in law as well as custom. In sum they comprise civilized life.

Yet life online is not yet civilized. We still lack sufficient means for expressing and guarding private spaces, for putting up boundaries, for signaling intentions to each other, and for signaling back respect for those signals. In the absence of those we also lack sufficient custom and law. Worse, laws created in the physical world do not all comprehend a virtual one in which all of us, everywhere in the world, are by design zero distance apart — and at costs that yearn toward zero as well. This is still very new to human experience.

In the absence of restricting customs and laws it is easy for those with the power to penetrate our private spaces (such as our browsers and email clients) to do so. This is why our private spaces online today are infected with tracking files that report our activities back to others we have never met and don’t know. These practices would never be sanctioned in the physical world, but in the uncivilized virtual world they are easy to rationalize: Hey, it’s easy to do, everybody does it, it’s normative now, transparency is a Good Thing, it helps fund “free” sites and services, nobody is really harmed, and so on.

But it’s not okay. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done, or that it’s the right thing to do. Nor is it right because it is, for now, normative, or because everybody seems to put up with it. The only reason people continue to put up with it is because they have little choice — so far.

Study after study show that people are highly concerned about their privacy online, and vexed by their limited ability to do anything about its absence. For example —

  • Pew reports that “93% of adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important,” that “90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important,” that 93% “also value having the ability to share confidential matters with another trusted person,” that “88% say it is important that they not have someone watch or listen to them without their permission,” and that 63% “feel it is important to be able to “go around in public without always being identified.”
  • Ipsos, on behalf of TRUSTe, reports that “92% of U.S. Internet users worry about their privacy online,” that “91% of U.S. Internet users say they avoid companies that do not protect their privacy,” “22% don’t trust anyone to protect their online privacy,” that “45% think online privacy is more important than national security,” that 91% “avoid doing business with companies who I do not believe protect my privacy online,” that “77% have moderated their online activity in the last year due to privacy concerns,” and that, in sum, “Consumers want transparency, notice and choice in exchange for trust.”
  • Customer Commons reports that “A large percentage of individuals employ artful dodges to avoid giving out requested personal information online when they believe at least some of that information is not required.” Specifically, “Only 8.45% of respondents reported that they always accurately disclose personal information that is requested of them. The remaining 91.55% reported that they are less than fully disclosing.”
  • The Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania reports that “a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data—and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs.” Specifically, “91% disagree (77% of them strongly) that ‘If companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about me without my knowing.'” And “71% disagree (53% of them strongly) that ‘It’s fair for an online or physical store to monitor what I’m doing online when I’m there, in exchange for letting me use the store’s wireless internet, or Wi-Fi, without charge.'”

There are both policy and market responses to these findings. On the policy side, Europe has laws protecting personal data that go back to the Data Protection Directive of 1995. Australia has similar laws going back to 1988. On the market side, Apple now has a strong pro-privacy stance, posted Privacy – Apple, taking the form an open letter to the world from CEO Tim Cook. One excerpt:

“Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t ‘monetize’ the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.”

But we also need tools that serve us as personally as do our own clothes. And we’ll get them. The collection of developers listed here by ProjectVRM are all working on tools that give individuals ways of operating privately in the networked world. The most successful of those today are the ad and tracking blockers listed under Privacy Protection. According to the latest PageFair/Adobe study, the population of persons blocking ads online passed 200 million in May of 2015, with a 42% annual increase in the U.S. and an 82% rate in the U.K. alone.

These tools create and guard private spaces in our online lives by giving us ways to set boundaries and exclude unwanted intrusions. These are primitive systems, so far, but they do work and are sure to evolve. As they do, expect the online world to become as civilized as the offline one — eventually.

For more about all of this, visit my Adblock War Series.

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I’ll be on a webinar this morning talking with folks about The Intention Economy and the Rise in Customer Power. That link goes to my recent post about it on the blog of Modria, the VRM company hosting the event.

It’s at 9:30am Pacific time. Read more about it and register to attend here. There it also says “As a bonus, all registered attendees will receive a free copy of Doc’s latest book, The Intention Economy: How Customers Are Taking Charge in either printed or Kindle format.”

See/hear you there/then.

 

 

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reader-publisher-advertiser-safeadsTake a look at any ad, for anything, online.

Do you know whether or not it’s meant for you personally — meaning that you’ve been tracked somehow, and that tracking has been used to aim the ad at you? Chances are you don’t, and that’s a problem.

Sometimes the tracking is obvious, especially with retargeted ads. (Those are the shoes or hats or fishing poles that follow you to sites B, C and D after you looked at something like them at site A.) But most of the time it’s not.

Being followed around the Web is not among the things most of us want when we visit a website. Nor is it what we expect from most advertising.

Yet much of today’s advertising online comes with privacy-invading tracking files that slows page loads, drives up data use on our mobile devices and sometimes carries a bonus payload of malware.

So we block ads — in droves so large that ad blocking now comprises the largest boycott of anything in human history.

Reduced to a hashtag, what we say with our ad blockers is #NoAds. But even AdBlock Plus (the top ad blocker and the most popular* add-on overall), whitelists what its community calls “acceptable ads” by default.

So there is some market acceptance, if not demand, for some advertising. Specifically, Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto whitelists ads that:

  1. are not annoying.
  2. do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
  3. are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. are effective without shouting at us.
  5. are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Those are all fine, but none of them yet draws a line between what you, or anybody, knows is safe, and what isn’t.

In Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, I draw that line between ads aimed at populations and ads aimed at you (because you’re being tracked). Here’s one way of illustrating the difference:

wheat-chaff-division2

As Don Marti puts it in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, #SafeAds carry a signal that personally targeted ads do not. For one thing, they don’t carry the burden of requiring that every ad perform in some way, preferably with an action by you. He explains,

Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explained the signaling logic behind advertising in a 1984 paper.

When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered. In order for advertising to be an effective signal, high-quality firms must be able to recover advertising costs while low-quality firms cannot.

Kevin Simler writes, in Ads Don’t Work that Way,

Knowing (or sensing) how much money a company has thrown down for an ad campaign helps consumers distinguish between big, stable companies and smaller, struggling ones, or between products with a lot of internal support (from their parent companies) and products without such support. And this, in turn, gives the consumer confidence that the product is likely to be around for a while and to be well-supported. This is critical for complex products like software, electronics, and cars, which require ongoing support and maintenance, as well as for anything that requires a big ecosystem (e.g. Xbox).

In my wheat & chaff post, I said,

Let’s fix the problem ourselves, by working with the browser and ad and tracking blockers to create simple means for labeling the wheat and restricting our advertising diet to it.

So this is my concrete suggestion: label every ad not aimed by tracking with the hashtag “#SafeAd.”

It shouldn’t be hard. The adtech industry has AdChoices, a complicated program that supposedly puts you “in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Credit where due: at least it shows that advertisers are willing to label their ads. A #SafeAd hashtag (and/or some simple code that speaks to ad and tracking blockers) would do the same thing, with less overhead, with a nice clear signal that users can appreciate.

#SafeAds is the only trail I know beyond the pure-prophylaxis #NoAds signal that ad blocking sends to publishers and advertisers today. So let’s blaze it.

* That’s for Firefox. I can’t find an equivalent list for other browsers. Help with that is welcome.

no-ads-trackingHere is a list of pieces I’ve written on what has come to be known as the “adblock wars.” That term applies most to #22 (written August of ’15) those that follow. But the whole series works as a coherent whole that might make a good book if a publisher is interested.

  1. Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble (31 October 2008)
  2. After the advertising bubble bursts (23 March 2009)
  3. The Data Bubble (31 July 2010)
  4. The Data Bubble II (30 October 2010)
  5. A sense of bewronging (2 April 2011)
  6. For personal data, use value beats sale value (13 February 2012)
  7. Stop making cows. Quit being calves. (21 February 2012)
  8. An olive branch to advertising (12 September 2012, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  9. What could/should advertising look like in 2020, and what do we need to do now for this future? (Wharton’s Future of Advertising project, 13 November 2012)
  10. Bringing manners to marketing (12 January 2013 in Customer Commons)
  11. Thoughts on Privacy (31 August 2013)
  12. What the ad biz needs is to evict direct marketing (6 October 2013)
  13. We are not fish and advertising is not food (23 January 2014 in Customer Commons)
  14. Earth to Mozilla: Come back home (12 April 2014)
  15. Why to avoid advertising as a business model (25 June 2014, re-running Open Letter to Meg Whitman, which ran on 15 October 2000 in my old blog)
  16. Time for digital emancipation (27 July 2014)
  17. Privacy is personal (2 July 2014 in Linux Journal)
  18. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  19. Thoughts on tracking based advertising (18 February 2015)
  20. Because freedom matters (26 March 2015)
  21. On taking personalized ads personally (27 March 2015)
  22. Captivity rules (29 March 2015)
  23. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015)
  24. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  25. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  26. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  27. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  28. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  29. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  30. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  31. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)
  32. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October on the ProjectVRM blog)
  33. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  34. How Will the Big Data Craze Play Out (1 November 2015 in Linux Journal)
  35. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)
  36. At last, Cluetrain’s time has come (5 December 2015)
  37. The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It (11 December 2015 in MIT Technology Review)
  38. More thoughts on privacy (13 December 2015)
  39. Why ad blocking is good (17 December 2015 talk at the U. of Michigan)
  40. What we can do with ad blocking’s leverage (1 January 2016 in Linux Journal)
  41. Rethinking John Wanamaker (18 January 2016)

There are others, but those will do for now.

In an email today I was asked by a PR person if I wanted to talk with somebody at a major newspaper about its foray into “native” advertising, a euphemism for ads made to look like editorial matter. Among other things they asked if native advertising would “signify the death of credible journalism.” Here was my response:

I think tricking up advertising to look like journalism crosses a line I wish (name of paper) would keep up as a thick wall.

In publishing, editorial is church and advertising is state. The difference should be clear, and the latter should not be confused with the former. For nearly all its history, this was the case with (name of paper), and all serious publications.

While native ads don’t signify the death of credible journalism, they do signify a sell-out by publishers using them.

If (person at the paper) wants to try convincing me otherwise, I’m game. But be warned that the likelihood that I’ll give native ads a positive spin — for any pub — is close to nil.

“Native advertising” is just one poison arrow in the quiver of “content marketing“—a Borg that wants to assimilate all the media it pays to fill with itself. Both “native advertising” and “content marketing” began to trend in 2012.

Bonus link — Andrew Sullivan on Native Ads: Journalism has surrendered. Great interview.

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