Ad blocking and privacy – a manifesto


tldr: Ad blocking is the key to our privacy. Without government regulation of commercial surveillance (not likely), we have to defend ourselves. Our most effective weapon is to destroy the economic value of our data by forcibly opting ourselves out of advertising.

The current situation is grim

In an ideal world, our internet usage would be broadly private, shielded from unnecessary governmental or commercial observation. That is the opposite of the world today. As we have painfully learned, from Snowden and others, government agencies in every country are profoundly indifferent to their citizens’ privacy. And the ubiquitous corporate monitoring of our online interactions has led prominent security guru Bruce Schneier to conclude that “surveillance is the business model of the internet.”

Admittedly, the situation is complicated. Law enforcement agencies receive a great deal of support when they target terrorism, and the largest commercial online data collectors, Google and Facebook, do not lack for willing (and happy) users. Yet, a great deal of popular anxiety exists about the level we are observed in our online activities, and the vast amount of data compiled about us.

The recent decision to roll back government restrictions on ISP surveillance underscores concretely how badly consumers are losing the privacy battle. Broadband providers are now free to track their customers without permission, or even notification. Defenders of the move maintain it levels the regulatory playing field between broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T and online service providers like Google and Facebook. And there is logic to that claim, but only in the cynical context of defining down to the lowest common denominator the permissions to surveill customers.

It is sad to say, but there is, at this time, no real hope for government action to meaningfully protect online privacy. Those familiar with the history of the FCC know how difficult it was to secure any meaningful regulations of corporate behavior in this area. And the latest maneuvers of the Trump administration to overturn Net Neutrality regulations demonstrate in the starkest terms that the prospect of FCC restrictions on corporate surveillance are effectively nil.

Consumers justifiably feel impotent in their lack of power relative to the large corporate interests that dominate our lives online, and who profit through the commercialization of the data we generate. Are we forced to use Google and Facebook? There is nothing mandatory about searching with Google or participating in Facebook, but the customs of modern online living virtually dictate some interaction with the Silicon Valley giants, who after all do track users online, even those not registered with them. As for the broadband providers in the US, now so eager to also profit from surveillance, they are regional monopolies. In the absence of meaningful competition for internet access, users will have to accept their privacy policies, regardless of how intrusive they are likely to be.

If the government refuses to defend online privacy, the logical response is active self-defense by consumers themselves. Encryption based privacy tools like VPNs, HTTPS and Tor are technically robust and can shield users from some forms of surveillance and should be adopted. But these protections are unlikely to ever reach a critical mass of users, as the tools are costly, complex to adopt, and can have a negative impact on user experience. The burden on adopters is simply too great. Ultimately, shielding only a small subset of the technically savvy is will not disrupt the anti-privacy business model in a meaningful way.

Ad blocking as privacy weapon

The most effective privacy tactic is not for us to try to hide, which likely will not work anyway, but instead, to actively destroy the economic value of consumer surveillance data. Users should embrace ad blocking to the fullest extent possible and deny their attention to the advertisers so desperate to reach them. Unlike the previously mentioned encryption tools, ad blocking is free, easy to implement, and, crucially, it improves the user experience, particularly in terms of speed and distraction. Most importantly, ad blocking subverts the surveillance business model at a fundamental level. It hits the surveillers precisely where it will do the most damage, their bottom line.

An important caveat to remember is that ad blocking by itself does not prevent surveillance. It does not shield a user from monitoring, nor does it automatically stop tracking. Ad blocking does, however, eliminate the primary rationale for companies to pursue surveillance in the first place. After all, the business model of the internet is not really surveillance, it is advertising. The data generated by surveillance and tracking is not valuable by itself, it only has value as a way for marketers and advertisers to target potential customers. By tracking users, and assigning demographic and market characteristics to them, internet companies promise to advertisers a more effectively captured and delivered target market.

The actual real-world effectiveness of targeted online advertising remains open to question, but as long as companies are willing to pay for it, the data generated by surveillance will continue to have commercial value. It can be easy to forget that Facebook and Google are, above all else, advertising companies. Everything they do and every product and service they release serves the goal of generating data to better target the advertising they sell. And they are very, very good at it, as their recent earnings make all too clear.

Without a political sea change, we can expect no privacy protections from the US government. Therefore, the only way to change corporate behavior is to destroy the economic value of the data gathered through surveillance. If enough people prevent advertising from reaching them, then the data generated will be meaningless commercially. The best, most precisely targeted ad is completely worthless if the intended recipient never sees it.

The watchers recognize the threat

Opting ourselves out of online advertising is the one action that the vast majority of internet users can do, right now, that is likely to produce long-term results. We know that the companies involved take ad blocking very, very seriously. And they are well aware that ad blocking has risen considerably in the last two years. For companies like Facebook and Google, that earn upwards of 80-90% of their revenue from advertising, large numbers of users dropping out of the surveillance economy would have devastating consequences. Recent studies estimate that from 25 to 30% of web users in the US block ads currently, and the indications point to those numbers trending ever upwards.

Ad blocking is particularly dangerous for the surveillance companies because it is very “sticky.” As almost anyone who blocks ads will tell you, the difference between an ad-free online experience and the alternative is huge. Without advertising, the web looks better, loads faster, and uses far less data (and will not infect you with ad-based malvertising). The prospect of going backwards, and accepting advertising in their online experience again is terrifying to most ad block users. As a consumer choice and a pointed form of protest, ad blocking will be very difficult to be put back in the bottle.

Recognized the seriousness of the threat, Facebook has worked aggressively to make their advertising immune to common ad blocking techniques, and even touts that fact when discussing their revenue. Google has also reacted to ad blocking in a variety of ways, from preventing ad blocking on Android Chrome to paying the company behind Adblock Plus to let Google ads through their filters. Google’s most recent rumored move, to get into the ad blocking game themselves via their Chrome browser, is clearly another defensive tactic, to limit the most egregious irritants of online advertising in order to preserve the broader advertising ecosystem they depend on. Google’s push to force websites to adopt their mobile AMP platform is an effort to clean up the worst aspects of the mobile advertising ecosystem before ad blocking grows more prevalent there. And Facebook just announced their own new initiative to improve online advertising by choking traffic to sites with a “low quality web experience” that are “covered in disruptive, shocking or malicious ads.”

Facebook and Google are scrambling to discourage ad blocking not just because it threatens their revenue, but also because they know that users do have the ultimate power. As a recent research paper from Princeton demonstrates, because users control their browser software, advertisers will never be able to fully dictate how, or if, their ads are displayed. A sheer brute force effort cannot compel users to accept advertising as the price for free content, despite the claims of many adtech vendors, now eager to cash in on targeting the ever more valuable ad adverse demographic (!).

The cost of protest

There are a number of ethical arguments often trotted out against ad blocking, and in defense of free ad-supported journalism. Yet there are other forms of monetization available to publishers (subscriptions, paywalls, micropayments, Patreon, merchandise, etc.) and readers are under no moral obligation to support a specific business model that sacrifices their privacy (and risks their security). Further, ad blocking powerfully communicates to publishers an intolerance for surveillance-based businesses. Merely avoiding sites with distasteful advertising experiences, as some recommend as the more ethically consistent behavior, does not make as pointed a statement against publisher practices. A drop in traffic can indicate a plethora of factors, but a site with a high number of ad blocking readers gets a much more unambiguous message: we like your content, but do not support the method of its monetization.

Noted internet observer Doc Searls has called ad blocking the largest boycott in history, but I believe a better formulation for consumer ad avoidance is as a form of “commercial disobedience.” Historically, consumers have often engaged in practices that deviated from corporate business models. Every time we go to a store and buy a heavily discounted item without then buying another item at a regular price, we are opting out of their retail strategy. Every time we use an inexpensive third-party ink cartridge in a low-cost printer we upset the manufacturer’s plan to sell devices cheaply in order to profit from expensive ink. Have you ever used a browser’s “incognito mode” to evade a site’s pay wall? Filled out a web registration form with bogus information? Shared a Netflix password? Purchased an item with an incorrect price listed? Read an entire magazine while sitting in bookstore? Used the internet at a coffee shop without buying something? Snuck your own candy into a movie theater? Ripped a borrowed CD?

There are countless examples of consumers subverting the dynamics of a commercial relationship, despite a company’s business model depending on them doing the opposite. Such consumer actions may in fact be short-sighted by endangering a favorite business. Or they may be ethically questionable, by obtaining something without fair compensation. But in all cases, even the quasi-illegal ones, economic disobedience sets conditions and creates boundaries for the marketplace. They demonstrate the parameters of what consumers will tolerate in commercial relationships. If sufficient numbers of internet users aggressively ad block, it will destroy the value of the data collected and severely damage the viability of the surveillance based advertising model.

For those most concerned with governmental surveillance, ad blocking may seem a misguided or even distracting effort. I disagree for two reasons. First, the fight against government snooping strikes me as far more quixotic. The post-9/11 national security apparatus has such an unquenchable appetite for surveillance, in a context of continued fears of terrorism, that the likelihood of significant progress in this area remains far-fetched, in my opinion. Even after all the revelations by Snowden, there has been no broad-based push back against mass surveillance. If anything, the ongoing efforts to mandate backdoors into commercial encryption systems only underscores the momentum towards pervasive government snooping.

Second, a powerful movement against commercial monitoring would, in fact, powerfully limit some forms of government surveillance. Agencies like the NSA, for example, are better able to collect vast information about us because commercial entities have already built so many surveillance tools and collected such massive amounts of data. The commercially gathered data is rather easy pickings for government snoops, either voluntarily from companies, forced through legal means, or obtained surreptitiously. Most internet users will never become the targets of specific government surveillance, but we are helping to build massive dossiers of our lives that will be available in case a government ever decides to look. Eliminating the economic value of our data decreases the odds of it ever being recorded in the first place.

Ad blocking is not the ultimate privacy panacea. Even if every internet user in the world adopted it tomorrow, our panopticon society would not become utopian immediately, and there would certainly be negative effects for cultural production. Yet, the extreme situation we find ourselves in, where almost everything we do online is recorded and saved for future exploitation by unaccountable mega-corporations, demands a response. Making our data far less valuable, by removing ourselves from the advertising/tracking nexus is the most effective weapon we have in the fight to defend our privacy and re-establish our autonomy in the digital world.

More to come…

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