Riding Free https://ridingfree.org Advertising and its Discontents Tue, 31 Oct 2017 23:42:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.6 107834714 They are trying to save an ad-tech dumpster fire https://ridingfree.org/2017/10/31/they-are-trying-to-save-an-ad-tech-dumpster-fire/ https://ridingfree.org/2017/10/31/they-are-trying-to-save-an-ad-tech-dumpster-fire/#respond Tue, 31 Oct 2017 23:42:10 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=308 (READ MORE)]]> Dumpster fire

Ad tech tries to save garbage world they created

Anytime ad blocking is brought up in an online forum, you will inevitably see a number of almost reflexive attacks.
“Your favorite sites will die without advertising!”
“Advertising is the foundation to the open web!”
There are many more well-worn pro-advertising cliches, but fundamentally, the defenders of advertising usually argue that the benefits for both readers and publishers from advertising outweigh any downsides to the current business model.

There is some logic to that argument, of course. But a defense of online advertising, a claim to its unavoidable necessity to a vibrant online culture has to at least acknowledge some of its indisputable negative effects, in order to be taken seriously. And not just the obvious downsides for consumers, that include intrusive tracking, visual distraction, bandwidth losses, security vulnerabilities, to name a few. Often left unsaid in the ad blocking debate, however, is the pernicious effects the current surveillance based advertising model has not on the users, but on the publishers, marketers and businesses themselves. Even if ad blocking disappeared tomorrow, advertisers and publishers would not find themselves suddenly in a rediscovered paradise. In fact, there are profound arguments to be made against online advertising that have nothing to do with consumers at all.

Bob Hoffman, a long-time and legendary ad man, also known as the “Ad Contrarian,” has spent the last few years on a crusade against online advertising, but from the perspective of an insider, as someone who truly values advertising, but is not blind to the dark side of today’s online environment. His most recent post, “Top 10 Reasons Online Advertising Must Change” is a devastating critique of the current ad world from an insider’s perspective.

His list of online advertising problems includes fraud, waste, public disgust, effectiveness, brand safety, fake news, degradation of journalism, non-transparency, corruption and public safety. Of those, only two of them, public disgust and public safety have anything at all to do with users. The other eight issues are critical problems specifically for the advertisers and publishers themselves. In other words, the current system is deeply problematic for the businesses that conduct it, at least if not more so than for consumers.

As Hoffman points out, ad fraud has grown “in the past year to over $16 billion,” 75% of programmatic advertising never makes it to the consumer (with less than 10% of that ever actually noticed), click rates of 5 per 10,000 ads served, the relentless movement of ad money from quality journalistic sites to the “worst online publishers,” and the “pervasive” corruption throughout the ad ecosystem.

If that is what the advertisers themselves are realizing, you can well make the argument that ad blocking users are providing a service to publishers and marketers by forcing them to look twice at their own advertising practices. That is not to say a transition from the current system would be easy, particularly in replacing the ad and tracking-based revenue most publishers depend on to pay for their servers.  Yet the longer term benefits available after publishers are weaned off of the surveillance-based advertising model, supported by alternative funding models and new relationships with their users, will surely be much better than the current “preposterous train wreck” that is the online advertising industry in Hoffman’s words. A mass embrace of ad blocking by users, combined with stricter privacy regulations such as the EU’s GDPR and ePrivacy initiatives will despite the howls of the adtech industry, liberate both internet users and publishers from a system that creates more problems than it solves.

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The shock of ads and the stickiness of ad blocking https://ridingfree.org/2017/09/12/the-shock-of-ads-and-the-stickiness-of-ad-blocking/ https://ridingfree.org/2017/09/12/the-shock-of-ads-and-the-stickiness-of-ad-blocking/#respond Wed, 13 Sep 2017 00:00:35 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=301 (READ MORE)]]> A few days ago, I unexpectedly had the unpleasant experience of using a mobile device without ad blocking enabled. I had just flashed the latest “Oreo”  firmware for my Android-powered Nexus 5X cellphone, and was shocked to find ads appearing when I browsed with Chrome. For years, I’ve been using the AdAway application on my phones, to manipulate the Hosts file of the operating system to  prevent ads from being resolved on my phone. It works quite well and prevents ads from showing up in other mobile applications as well, not just when browsing.

To my horror, the firmware update was preventing AdAway from editing the necessary hosts files. As a short term fix I could switch to using Firefox with the uBlockOrigin plug-in installed, but I generally use Chrome, and definitely do not want to give up on AdAway. I tried a few possible fixes I found online, but it took me a day or so before I realized it was merely operator error. I had not updated the AdAway application in some time, and since it does not exist in the Google App store it does not update on its own. A quick download and re-installation of the latest AdAway version and I was back to where I wanted to be, with ads banned from my device. Whew.

The memorable thing, aside from my technical incompetence, was just how uncomfortable I felt with ads re-appearing on my phone. I use my phone way too much, and as such, have a very intimate relationship with it. Feeling a loss of control, of having things inflicted upon me via my phone, and not being able to assert my preference for an ad-free experience, was both visceral and unpleasant. Surfing the web with ads is simply something I almost never have to do, because of my use of ad blocking technologies on all my devices. It is not an experience I ever want to have, and I will go to great lengths to make sure I do not, both for aesthetic reasons and a belief in the necessity of retaining autonomy over my technology.

I am probably an outlier in this regard, as my hostility to advertising is profound and long-standing (I was blocking ads from the internet in the 1990s), but I suspect my negative reaction to essentially “going backwards” in terms of ad avoidance is likely very common among those who block ads. Once you have experienced an ad-free internet, it is VERY difficult, I believe, to accept advertising back in one’s visual environment. I expect that statistics would underscore this point, that ad avoidance is a “sticky” phenomenon for users, and that very few ad blockers ever voluntarily go back to an ad cluttered environment, at least without a fight. They will do all in their power to continue to avoid ads, and will take active measures to ensure their choice gets respected by their devices. I am far from convinced that recent moves by ad dependent companies, in publishing and technology, to get ad blockers to surrender to advertising will be successful.

And from the standpoint of ad blocking as a useful tactic against surveillance capitalism, the stickiness of it, the obvious value it brings to users makes it a very formidable weapon. Getting users aware and invested in maintaining an ad free online lifestyle could be a crucial step in the longer-term struggle to get users committed and active in their own-self defense against tracking and surveillance.

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Today in ad avoidance https://ridingfree.org/2017/09/05/today-in-ad-avoidance/ https://ridingfree.org/2017/09/05/today-in-ad-avoidance/#respond Tue, 05 Sep 2017 23:58:53 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=291 (READ MORE)]]> There is so much happening around ad avoidance, it is hard to keep up. As the landscape for advertising evolves, both in response to user activities, industry developments and governmental interventions, news breaks daily, if not hourly! I am going to try and catalog some of the developments in the ad avoidance area, if only to track how the big stories evolve over time. Commentary and analysis as time permits!

Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR

Project VRM – Doc Searls – Everybody in the advertising world is focused on the new regulations from the EU, the General Data Protection Regulations, that promise to restrict what companies can do with their users’ data, particularly in relation to their explicit consent. The legendary Doc Searls tries to remind advertisers in this piece, as he has been preaching for years, that consumers do  want a fairer and more transparent method for understanding the value exchange underlying online tracking and marketing, and that it would be in the companies’ own best interest to stop tracking their users.

A Serf on Google’s Farm

Talking Points Memo – Josh Marshall – Unlike in Europe, Google has faced almost no regulatory issues in the US, for a number of reasons both historical and political. Nonetheless, the atmosphere around the search giant is clearly shifting, as it has faced recent public attacks from a number of groups, representing very different points on the political spectrum (conservatives upset about the diversity memo affair, liberals angry over ham-fisted attempts to de-fund anti-monopoly critics, etc.). While Google has long faced criticisms of its dominance in relation to media companies, Josh Marshall’s long and in-depth examination of the central role Google plays in his online publication’s existence is note-worthy, as he is influential in both political and media circles, and is also someone who is digitally savvy. This is not an old-time ink-stained print relic shaking his fist at internet clouds, Marshall is a successful digital native publisher and even he feels utterly beholden to Google. There is a general question to be asked, which relates to the wisdom of building a business on somebody else’s platform, but this is the kind of article that is going to reverberate for quite some time.

You Are the Product

London Review of Books – John Lanchester – Easily the best-written piece I have read about surveillance capitalism in some time, easily worth anyone’s attention and a great article to share with friends not as steeped in these issues. Lanchester is an excellent writer in general, whom I have followed for years from his New Yorker days, and he does an outstanding job of presenting the big issues related to Facebook and the industry of tracking. I will have more to say about this piece, but for now, my main critique is that Lanchester makes no mention of the steps users can take to eliminate advertising from their online experiences, and how that movement could actually present a real alternative force to the Facebook and Google in the future.

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Ad blocking and privacy – a manifesto https://ridingfree.org/2017/05/30/ad-blocking-and-privacy-a-manifesto/ https://ridingfree.org/2017/05/30/ad-blocking-and-privacy-a-manifesto/#comments Tue, 30 May 2017 20:45:23 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=274 (READ MORE)]]>  

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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German Publishers Ratchet Up Feud with Adblock Plus https://ridingfree.org/2017/02/15/german-publishers-ratchet-up-feud-with-adblock-plus/ https://ridingfree.org/2017/02/15/german-publishers-ratchet-up-feud-with-adblock-plus/#respond Wed, 15 Feb 2017 22:56:16 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=260 (READ MORE)]]> A recently released study on the spread of ad blocking and its effects, researched by advertising software maker PageFair, has brought renewed attention to the online ad avoidance movement. The findings of the study are complex, even contradictory, but both publishers and marketers continue to be alarmed by the growth of blocking.

A number of large publishers, particularly in Germany, have decided to use lawsuits to fight the spread of ad blocking, and the latest twist in this on-going legal campaign has increased the stakes, for both the media companies and the software company behind the most popular ad blocking tool.

In late January, the German tech journal Heise reported that officers from the Cologne police department served search warrants on Eyeo GmbH, going through company headquarters in Cologne, its Berlin office, and the homes of at least three Eyeo employees. The warrants stem from a criminal complaint, seemingly initiated by German publisher Axel Springer, accusing Eyeo, the company behind the popular Adblock Plus software, of “commercial copyright infringement.”

For years, German publishers have doggedly fought Eyeo in court, trying and, for the most part, failing, to get Eyeo declared in violation of commercial competition statutes. Using rhetoric replete with claims of “blackmail” and “highway robbery,” online German publications have targeted Eyeo’s “Acceptable Ads” program that allows certain kinds of advertising through Adblock Plus’ filters, based on the nature of the ads and, sometimes, for a fee.

Despite these lawsuits, brought by some of Germany’s most established publications, including Spiegel and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, judges have consistently ruled in Eyeo’s favor. In their view, individual users actually do the ad filtering on their own computers, therefore Eyeo is merely providing a software tool, and is not liable.

Nonetheless, Axel Springer, the publisher of Bild, Germany’s largest circulation newspaper, won a partial victory against Eyeo in October 2015. Bild introduced a new kind of paywall, a “blockwall” that required readers to either turn off their adblocking tools or pay for a subscription to an ad light version. Almost immediately thereafter, Springer secured a restraining order against Eyeo, to prevent Adblock Plus from distributing tools for users to evade the blockwall, and read the paper without a subscription or seeing ads.

In order to counter all the various ways publishers show ads to users, adblocking software needs constantly maintained filter lists, updated by thousands of volunteers who contribute to open source repositories of ad blocking technologies. Eyeo the company maintains their legal distance from these filter lists, neither contributing or administering them, but merely allowing Adblock Plus users to subscribe to through the software.

Shortly after the introduction of Bild’s blockwall, the very popular EasyList filter updated to allow Adblock Plus users to evade the new defense. In response, and in a departure from their previous “blackmail” legal arguments, Springer accused Eyeo of distributing a tool that breaks encryption to infringe copyright. The district court in Cologne agreed, although, as Eyeo was quick to point out, the judges’ decision did not address the legality of ad blocking, or even crowd-sourced filters, just the specific issue of breaking Bild’s new form of DRM. Eyeo agreed not to provide instructions on how to evade the Bild blockwall, or distribute filters that would do it. At the same time, a video blogger Tobias Richter, who had posted YouTube videos on how to evade the Bild blockwall, was also sued and forced to take down his instructional clips.

Springer continues to fight Eyeo, even while the software company racks up victories against publishers in German courts, with Sueddeutsche losing in March, and Der Spiegel losing in December. In June, however, the state court in Cologne decided that while ad blocking via blacklists was legal, the use of white lists, and Eyeo’s charging for entry on the lists was problematic, but that the topic was important enough for Germany’s highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, will have to decide the matter.

While no one expects a final judgement to arrive quickly, the fight between Axel Springer and Eyeo continues to evolve. The recent searches warrants stem from accusations from Springer that Eyeo is materially responsible for the filter lists the distribute. An Eyeo employee does often work on the EasyList filter, and Springer believes there is evidence he does so on company time. And the video blogger Springer sued over ad blocking instructions, who had at first vowed to fight the publishing giant, has given up his legal campaign after losing his initial defense argument and facing extremely expensive punitive damages.

Ultimately, it is hard to believe that even a comprehensive victory for Springer from the German high court would some how restore the revenue the publisher believes it loses because of adblocking. Forcing users to experience ads against their will is unlikely to win back their allegiance, while more creative avenues, or even subscriptions, might produce better returns.

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German court considers banning Eyeo’s “Acceptable Ads” program https://ridingfree.org/2016/05/30/german-court-considers-banning-eyeos-acceptable-ads-program/ https://ridingfree.org/2016/05/30/german-court-considers-banning-eyeos-acceptable-ads-program/#comments Tue, 31 May 2016 05:42:28 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=250 (READ MORE)]]> German publishers have amassed a singularly unimpressive legal track record in their attempts to ban ad blocking through litigation. At least five different publishers have lost court battles over ad blocking in general, and against the Cologne based startup Eyeo/Ad Block Plus, in particular. While big German publishers like Axel Springer have reacted with fury to the companies behind ad blocking tools, courts have not, until now, accepted their arguments that ad blocking was inherently a malicious business practice, little better than extortion.

Reports out of Germany this week, however, indicate that the publishers’ losing streak is about to end. Even after defeats in lower regional courts in Cologne, Munich and Hamburg, a higher regional court, the Oberlandesgericht in Cologne is set to announce a victory for Axel Springer against Eyeo by the end of June. Based on the judges’ statements during oral arguments on May 20, the court is ready to accept the publisher’s argument that Eyeo’s Ad Block Plus and Acceptable Ads program put Springer and Eyeo in “direct competition,” and, hence, that the startup’s behavior does count as illegal “unfair business practices” against a competitor.

The court did reject a number of other Springer complaints against Eyeo, including the charge that ad blocking companies should be financially liable for the publisher’ lost income, or that ad blocking is a circumvention tool for violating copyright, or an assault on the freedom of the press. Eyeo’s lawyers disputed the notion that the company had the necessary “market power” to disrupt fair competition noticeably, but the existence of lucrative contracts between the tiny startup and economic giants such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft seemly convinced the judges otherwise.

Regardless of the exact details of the decision expected later this month, both sides have indicated they will likely press the case to Germany’s highest court, the Bundesgerichtshof.

While Axel Springer executives will certainly derive great satisfaction from the expected decision of the Cologne appeals court, it does raise the question of what their final legal end game actually is. If this court, or the next, does ultimately get Eyeo’s Acceptable Ads program banned in Germany, it is hard to see how the publishers’ outlook would really improve. There are dozens of other ad blocking tools available that would not be affected by such a prohibition, not to mention the many ad blockers, like the excellent uBlock Origin that have no commercial aspect whatsoever, and are maintained and supported by deeply committed volunteer developers. If anything, where Ad Block Plus to disappear tomorrow, the ultimate effect would likely be to drive its tens of millions of users to extensions like uBlock Origin. And unlike Eyeo, the people behind uBO have absolutely no interest in working with publishers or advertisers at all, but have essentially declared total war on them. It would make more sense for publishers like Springer to work together with Eyeo to come up with a solution that both sides could live with, instead of driving those users to far more effective and uncompromising opponents with absolutely no financial incentive to find a compromise.

[For non-German readers: only link to coverage in English I could find]

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A Brilliant Strategy or an Own Goal https://ridingfree.org/2016/05/20/a-brilliant-strategy-or-an-own-goal/ https://ridingfree.org/2016/05/20/a-brilliant-strategy-or-an-own-goal/#comments Fri, 20 May 2016 21:17:35 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=237 (READ MORE)]]> Rob Leathern, the CEO of Optimal.com, a commercial platform attempting to “fix advertising” by eliminating the worst actors while still directing revenue to publishers, released the results of a survey commissioned with Wells Fargo, examining attitudes among web users to ad blocking. The survey polled 1700 users, and has the imprimatur of Wells Fargo to give it some heft. And Leathern’s claims are certainly interesting, particularly when he uses the survey to make projections of how much revenue online advertising will lose if current trends continue. According to Optimal, ad blocking will reduce annual advertising revenues by $12.1 billion in 2020, in the US alone.

These predictions seem questionable, little better than guess work, really, but the study did have one quite interesting data point. Of the respondents not currently ad blocking, over 45% were not even aware ad blocking was a possibility, on either desktop or mobile. For any defender of the current online publishing model, so overwhelmingly dependent on advertising revenue, such a number has to be hair-raising. Awareness of ad blocking has skyrocketed in recent months since Apple allowed content blocking on iOS devices, and the percentage of web users unaware of ad blocking is only going to shrink in the future.

Even more frustrating is the logical conclusion such data suggests: that the growing practice by publishers of aggressively countering ad blocking users may only serve to alert “unawares” of the possibility of ad blocking. While non-blockers do not see the pleas from sites like Wired or Bild, the uproar such actions have provoked may in fact just bring more attention to ad blocking. In addition, legal scraps like we have seen in German courts against ad blocking companies also creates a bonanza of publicity for ad blocking in general, and companies like Eyeo, in particular.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt famously coined the phrase, “the Streisand Effect” whereby attempts to deter a specific behavior ends up actually increasing it through the publicity the controversy generates, first used to describe Barbra Streisand’s ultimately self-defeating efforts to prevent photographs of her Malibu house appearing online. While the situation of online publishers vis-a-vis ad blocking is not a perfect fit for the classic “Streisand Effect,” all their work to reduce ad blocking usage is likely to result in yet more people taking steps to flee from unwanted advertising. In the long run, it may turn out that publishers would have been better served had they ignored it altogether, and instead focused on making their sites as compelling as they could, and their advertising as unobtrusive as possible.

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Theses https://ridingfree.org/2016/04/15/theses/ https://ridingfree.org/2016/04/15/theses/#respond Fri, 15 Apr 2016 21:24:09 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=203 (READ MORE)]]> While I will be shifting the focus of the blog from ad blocking news in general to a more specific analysis of the technology of ad blocking, I do want to get down a number of thoughts and conclusions I have come to in recent months. I will be writing a series of posts that lay out, in concise (if scattershot) snippets what I really think is going on and where we might be headed in the future. Not sure how many of these there will be, certainly fewer than 95, but I hope you find them interesting and thought provoking.


(1). Ad blocking is a small part of a far larger story, which is the continued attempt to re-create an analog publishing world online. Twenty-plus years after the internet became a mass phenomenon, publishers are still operating from assumptions that pre-date the digital era, especially in regard to monetizing attention through advertising. Ben Thompson of Stratechery has analyzed this most insightfully, in the context of the shift from desktop to mobile and from the open web to platforms:

The end result of this process is that newspapers have been modularized and commoditized into effective Facebook-filler, competing on an equal basis with everything from new media startups like BuzzFeed to personal blog posts to pictures of your cousin’s new baby. It’s hard for publishers to break through with content, and publisher-centric advertising is dying: better for ad buyers to get as close to the customer as possible and buy space on the service that has aggregated users on one side and leveraged that into commoditizing and modularizing suppliers on the other.

(Really, go and read him, he just nails it.) The old notions of publishing and advertising do not apply cleanly to the web generally and certainly not to the web of 2016. Ad blocking is merely one manifestation of a bigger dynamic working against the traditional publishing revenue model of easily monetizing attention.


(2). Ad blocking is not new. I first started experimenting with it in the late 1990’s. The explosion of interest in recent months stems from Apple’s big move last year that essentially “legitimized” it for many in the publishing and advertising world. Yet Apple’s decision occurred in a context of a deep unsettlement of digital already taking place. By itself, I do not believe allowing content blocking on iOS devices would have had quite the impact it did if publishers were not already nervous about two terrifying trends: 1) ad price commoditization and 2) ad visibility on mobile devices. In addition, the existence of Eyeo and Ad Block Plus allows publishers to lash out at ad blocking, without directly criticizing their own users, helps to push the narrative. But fundamentally, ad blocking is quite old, it is just the context in which it is occurring for both publishers and consumers that is creating tension, anxiety and excitement.


(3). Doc Searl’s conceptualization of ad blocking as a “boycott” is good, but I think a better term would be “consumer disobedience.” While there are many consumers who sincerely would turn off their ad blockers if the advertising industry cleaned up their act and shifted to less intrusive ad practices, like the IAB’s LEAN proposals, I believe that essentially no body would voluntarily turn off ad blockers without the threat of loosing free content. Put it in these terms, would anybody opt-in to advertising if they had the choice? No, of course not. Nobody values advertising as a good in itself, no matter what marketers wish to believe, or delude themselves over every year during the Super Bowl. Advertising is, at best, a necessary evil for the vast, vast majority of online readers, most of whom are happy to have it blocked from their view, for a variety of reasons we shall discuss.

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The Rothenberg Inevitability: Ad walls and the problem of malvertising https://ridingfree.org/2016/03/16/the-rothenberg-inevitability-ad-walls-and-the-problem-of-malvertising/ https://ridingfree.org/2016/03/16/the-rothenberg-inevitability-ad-walls-and-the-problem-of-malvertising/#respond Thu, 17 Mar 2016 00:37:57 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=219 (READ MORE)]]> A number of online publishers have decided to express their displeasure with ad blocking by creating “ad walls” that prevent readers from accessing content without viewing ads. Pioneered by the Bild newspaper in Germany, the trend has been continued by Forbes and Wired in the US, along with CityAM in the UK, with surely many more to join the bandwagon in future weeks. While there are many popular reasons to employ ad blockers, from aesthetic distaste, bloated page load times, excessive data use, to a fear of invasive tracking, a key reason for many is, simply, safety.

Online advertising can be an attack vector for infections by malware. Recent “malvertising” attacks have compromised personal information, installed browser redirecting software, and, worst of all, unleashed ransomware on unsuspecting site visitors. Publishers using automated “programmatic” advertising networks often have very little practical control of what advertising gets served from their sites, either in the content or in the code embedded with the ad. Malicious actors have capitalized on this system by placing malware into ads served by ad networks, thereby greatly increasing the spread of the infecting technology.

But most embarrassingly, malvertising has been discovered on sites that employ ad walls to demand that readers turn off their ad blocking software and allow advertising through browser defenses. Recently, Forbes was called out by a noted security researcher for serving malware, which he found after the site forced him to turn off his ad blocking software to read an article about a colleague. Yesterday another, even more painfully embarrassing example of this phenomenon occured. The New York Times, arguably the most high profile publisher in the US, began recently testing out ad wall technology, nagging their users to whitelist the site and allow advertising to be served. And, as we should have expected, soon thereafter security experts discovered that the legendary Gray Lady, the “paper of record,” of all places, was hosting the very nasty “Angler EK” malware. Other sites infected included the BBC, AOL, NFL.com and many, many more.

It is becoming somewhat comical, if depressing, to witness repeated instances where ad blocker blocking publishers prove insecure and capable of infecting precisely those users who, against their better judgement, trusted these sites, in order to support an advertising-based business model. Of course, this should come as no surprise, as the attempts by publishers to enforce an ad wall, make exactly those sites all the more attractive to malware criminals. The ad wall sites are, after all, forcibly reducing their readers’ protections and then serving them up to the malvertisers on a silver platter, as lambs ready for the slaughter. We should expect malware purveyors to specifically target sites that employ anti-ad block strategies like ad walls. The malvertisers are merely following in the path of the legendary bank robber Willie Sutton, who (may have) answered to the question of why he robbed banks, “because that’s where the money is.” For someone looking to infect users with malware, an ad walled site is the most target rich environment imaginable. And consequently, users will need to be even more vigilant about visiting those sites, and even more cautious about voluntarily lowering their anti-infection shields.

As someone who has experienced ransomware first hand, I can attest to the devastating effects it can have. No article from Forbes, Bild or even the New York Times is worth that risk, in my opinion. But worse, we see from the misguided strategies advertisers and publishers are taking towards ad blocking that they have essentially no regard for their readers’ safety and well-being. Advertisers and publishers have mostly dismissed the security rationale for ad blocking, instead focusing on readers being cheap pirates or ignorant of the essential democratic value of advertising. The IAB, the trade organization of online advertisers has nothing to say on the relationship between ad blocking and malvertising, and “D.E.A.L.” their new approved methods for dealing with ad blocking, makes no mention of the topic of users’ security whatsoever.

Instead, the leadership of the IAB focuses on what he calls the “unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes” that distribute ad blocking software, the actual tools that in reality actually protect users. Randall Rothenberg, the CEO of the IAB seems far more interested in protecting advertisers’ revenue than he is in protecting users from devastating malware. In his honor, we will refer in the future to the inexorable phenomenon of sites with ad walls getting caught distributing malware as the “Rothenberg Inevitability.” While not as catchy as the “Streisand Effect,” I think the sad but inescapable rise in such occurrences make it quite likely to catch on.

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Are “ad walls” legally protected? https://ridingfree.org/2016/03/11/are-ad-walls-legally-protected/ https://ridingfree.org/2016/03/11/are-ad-walls-legally-protected/#comments Fri, 11 Mar 2016 22:13:12 +0000 https://ridingfree.org/?p=212 (READ MORE)]]> As we wrote previously, the German media company Axel Springer has taken an aggressive stance against ad blockers and wants to prevent ad free reading of its bild.de site, even to the point of legally threatening a young YouTube tech blogger who had created a video tutorial on circumventing the Springer “ad wall.” Tobias Richter, the creator of the Tobis_Tricks YouTube channel took down his offending clip, but has so far refused to back down, even going so far as to run a successful crowd-funding campaign to raise the 7,000 Euros he may have to pay as a fine if Springer does sue him as threatened.

This week, Richter took the fight to a new level by requesting a German court to legally determine if his actions did indeed violate German copyright law by circumventing a copy-protection technology. The content at bild.de is not encrypted, and the ad-wall itself is relatively easy to bypass using standard ad blocking techniques of preventing certain domains and scripts from loading on a client browser. Axel Springer was successful in getting a court in its home town of Hamburg to issue a cease-and-desist order against Eyeo, the makers of Ad Block Plus, from publicly discussing circumvention methods for the Bild ad wall on its forums, but legal opinion remains divided.

Axel Springer has repeatedly failed in its efforts to get ad blocking outlawed in Germany, but may be on stronger ground with this case, by focusing on copyright issues, not commercial interference. But the contradiction Bild, and other publishers face when encountering ad blocking continues to complexify attempts to deal with it. As publishers, they want all the traffic they can get, but now they want to only allow the “right” kind of traffic. They want to communicate as loudly and widely as possible, but at the same time prevent certain elements of the audience from receiving it. Not an easy circle to square, so they create an ad wall, but make it relatively porous to avoid false positives and to prevent too precipitous a drop in readership.

Bild has been touting some measure of success in reducing the percentage of its readers ad blocking, but as Eyeo investor Tim Schumacher pointed out on Twitter, Bild’s Alexa traffic score has dropped significantly since they erected an ad wall:

Axel Springer may ultimately win the legal argument that ad walls can be enforced through the courts, at least in Germany, but it is far from proven that they make any economic sense.

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