Ethan Zuckerman, a scholar of the Internet at MIT, and a former web developer in the 90s, has published an Atlantic article with two great click-worthy elements: a catchy headline about the “original sin” of the Internet, and his claim to have invented the pop-up ad.In a longish piece, Zuckerman tells his own history of trying to develop a sustainable online business in the early days of the web, and how that almost inevitably led to an advertising-based model. According to Zuckerman, it was the decision to support most online content properties through advertising that propelled us to where we are today, with an Internet dominated by sites like Facebook that are free to users, but are heavily devoted to surveillance. In order to make online ads valuable, sites have had to deliver to marketers ever-increasing intelligence and targeting. And now that Facebook is the established behemoth, start-ups hoping to compete have to promise investors even more user data in order to get funding. As Zuckerman astutely points out, “Demonstrating that you’re going to target more and better than Facebook requires moving deeper into the world of surveillance—tracking users’ mobile devices as they move through the physical world, assembling more complex user profiles by trading information between data brokers.”
Irrespective of Zuckerman’s unprovable claim that he invented the pop-up ad, he does do an excellent job of reminding us how intertwined advertising and the loss of online privacy really are, and how central they both are to the ways we experience a “free” web. Although, there is growing evidence that Facebook is moving away from target advertising and toward bulk advertising. Nonetheless, whether or not there are any actual viable alternatives to online advertising generally, though, seems questionable at best. Alas, Zuckerman’s proposed solutions, including “micropayments, membership and crowdfunding” are neither new nor very innovative at this stage of the game.
What is more interesting to me is the solution unmentioned in the article, but that has an overwhelming presence in the article comments, adblocking. A large number of commentators, including the very first one, not only propose adblocking as the clear answer, but seem shocked that it is not even more obvious. From the author’s perspective, not mentioning adblocking is understandable, he is, after all, trying to propose alternatives to advertising that have a clear promise of revenue generation. And adblocking in current circumstances can be seen as contributing to the problem by further devaluing ads, and hence, only encouraging obnoxious ads and deeper surveillance. Yet the reality of today’s Internet is that for a significant percentage of users, distracting and potentially dangerous ads have caused them to essentially opt-out of the advertising model on an individual basis. A quick install of a browser extension can free them from almost any online advertising, and in a sense, return them to the Internet of the 1990s that Zuckerman wishes was retrievable. The only arguments against such behavior remain the ethical problem of free-riding and the consequentialist threat that adblocking will one day lead to free content disappearing. Needless to say, for a large number of users, those arguments have not yet proven convincing.