Computing

The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It

Millions of people are refusing to let intrusive, distracting, or irrelevant ads load on our devices. Consumers should seize the opportunity to demand a more mutually beneficial relationship with online advertisers.

My sister, a retired U.S. Navy commander, has a perfect military expression for what she does with her Sunday newspaper when it arrives: she “field-strips” it. Out go advertising inserts and other unwanted sections, sometimes before the paper even gets inside her house. Same goes for junk mail. The wheat gets in the door; the chaff goes in the bin.

Online, we have ad blockers to field-strip websites automatically. And before long, most people probably will deploy them. In its Digital News Report 2015, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reported that 47 percent of people surveyed in the United States “regularly use ad-blocking software.” According to PageFair and Adobe’s 2015 Ad Blocking Report, the worldwide number of people who stop ads from reaching their computers exceeded 200 million last May.

As boycotts go, ad blocking must be the largest in history. And it will only get bigger now that Apple supports “content blocking” on its devices, opening up even more ways for individuals to control what does and doesn’t get inside their
virtual doors.

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Ad blocking isn’t a new thing. Henrik Aasted Sørensen wrote the original Adblock extension—a program anyone can download and run in a Web browser—in 2002. Yet the technology didn’t take off until a decade later. What changed?

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I think the biggest reason people are rejecting ads can be summed up in one word: tracking. Over the past decade, companies have increasingly used technology lurking beneath the surface of online ads to capture as much data about us as possible. Advertisers don’t have to build this capability for themselves: they rely on ad delivery networks that claim they can show relevant ads to people no matter which website they’re visiting. Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School calls this rampant practice “surveillance capitalism.”

Perhaps the most bizarre illustration of this phenomenon at work is a poster published in 2013 by IBM and the Aberdeen Group research firm, headlined “The Big Datastillery.” It shows “clickstreams” (the details of our every mouse movement or finger swipe online), social media, and other sources of data flowing through pipes into a big hopper. At the bottom, “customer interaction optimization” and “marketing optimization” spigots pour distilled goop into empty beakers moving down a conveyor belt. Each empty beaker represents the “right person” getting the “right offer” through the “right channel” at the “right time.” Near the end of the belt, each beaker farts gases upward into a funnel collecting “campaign metrics” to feed back into the top of the hopper.

If you look at the numbers in callouts by the plumbing, you’ll see that even what IBM and Aberdeen call “Best-in-Class” marketing, generated by surveillance, gets less than 10 percent of customers to respond. Why? We’re rarely actually looking to buy anything. We’re just going about our lives, doing whatever we do, which isn’t marketers’ business unless we say it is.

It’s telling that when the authors of the PageFair-Adobe report asked 400 Americans why they started using an ad blocker, the primary reason they gave was to avoid “misuse of personal information.” Twelve months ago, the research firm Ipsos surveyed people on behalf of the marketing services company TRUSTe and found that concern about online privacy was rising. The top cause for worry: “Companies collecting and sharing my personal information with other companies.” People feared that more than government surveillance. So it’s no wonder that ad blocking hockey-sticked in popularity after it became clear that other mechanisms for protecting personal privacy—such as “Do Not Track” (a function you can activate in your Web browser to request that sites not compile information on you)—were mostly ignored by the online advertising business. When Do Not Track proved toothless, millions of people got their own fangs.

That means we’ve gained bargaining power with advertisers and publishers. What should we bargain for?

The first and easiest answer is: advertising that’s not based on tracking our every step. In other words, the old-­fashioned Madison Avenue kind that is still what we get in the offline world.

Even if we don’t like ads fattening our magazines and interrupting our TV shows, we at least know the economic role they play and appreciate the best ones, which can be every bit as good as the content they sponsor. These ads send strong signals about brands, and yet they respect our privacy, don’t plant tracking beacons on us, and don’t lure us away from what we’re doing. The attractive ads that populate Vogue and other high-quality offline media are advertising’s wheat. The kind that drive millions of us to use ad blockers are advertising’s chaff.

There are already some means for threshing the two apart online. The most popular ad blocker, Adblock Plus, by default lets through what it calls “acceptable” ads—though the company also, controversially, makes money by charging some companies whose ads it accepts. Many tools to observe and block tracking by ads—Bouncer, Disconnect, ­DoNotTrackMe, Ghostery, Lightbeam, NoScript, PrivacyFix, Privowny, and Web Pal, to name a few—also have the effect of blocking some of advertising’s chaff.

More important, any of these tools can evolve to actually help match consumer demand with advertisers’ supply in ways that don’t rely on surveillance-fed guesswork. I am talking about a technology that I call “intentcasting.” This is where you and I do the advertising, notifying a marketplace that we need some product or service. For example: “I need a sump pump for a flooded basement, ASAP,” or “I need the sensor on my Nikon camera cleaned without sending it off somewhere.”

These requests (called “qualified leads” on the receiving end) can also be issued anonymously. ProjectVRM, which I run at Harvard’s Berkman Center, lists nearly two dozen intentcasting startups and other development projects.

Creative ways of using existing ad delivery networks to facilitate specific customer requests are being developed. Browser makers could also provide intentcasting platforms. Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, brought me in as a consultant to (among other things) help make that happen. And since Mozilla open-sources its code, other browser makers are free to join in as well.

Think about how much more sensible it would be to let customers roam free and undisturbed with tools for giving truly valuable information to the supply side of the marketplace. Then think about how much money could be saved by shutting down the marketing machinery aimed at manipulating people who have already marked the output of that machinery down to the value of spam. Finally, think about how much more pleasant the online world would be.

Until that future arrives, we should permit advertising we actually can tolerate. This puts a burden on advertisers to make clear that the wheat it produces is good for us. The way to do that is by giving us the best of what advertising has always been: a creative art form. Why not use the Internet as a medium for that, rather than just for fracking personal data and using it to spam people with annoying guesses that mostly don’t work?

Otherwise, marketers are just inviting you to field-strip them.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal and a fellow of the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also an alumnus fellow of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

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