When ads attack: Web ad networks battle the blockers
If you use a browser extension to block Web ads, you're a thief. In the words of Avram Piltch of Tom's Guide, you're "enabling an extortion racket," and "what you're really blocking is food from entering a child's mouth."
Yep, the people who make their living by serving up ads on their websites are sweating bullets. Their claims to advertisers about the reach and effectiveness of the ads are overstated, according to The Atlantic's Derek Thompson in a June 13, 2014, article. Thompson cites a May 2014 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (pdf) that found only "new and infrequent users" are affected by web ads, but most ads are served to frequent users on whom the ads have no influence.
In an article from June 10, 2014, I explained how online ad networks have been infiltrated by malware purveyors. I revisited the subject in an April 7, 2015, article that described how commonplace online ad injectors have become. These programs replace the ads scheduled to appear on the pages you visit with their own, and according to Google researchers, one-third of these browser extensions are categorized as malware. The topper is that few people are even aware that the programs are installed on their machines.
Bringing order to the chaotic web-ad universe
Is it any wonder use of ad-blocking software is on the rise? Not only are web ads intrusive, annoying, and bandwidth-choking (particularly for the increasing percentage of mobile ads), they're also dangerous. Monday Notes' Felix Filloux writes in a May 25, 2015, article that in Germany and France, the percentage of people using ad blockers has reached 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
In the U.S., it's estimated that between 15 percent and 17 percent of all web users block ads, but among Millennials, the percentage is twice that, and on gaming sites, as many as 90 percent of users block ads, according to Filloux. Are all these people thieves who are stealing food out of the mouths of children, as Tom's Guide's Piltch claims? Would you accuse people who fast-forward through commercials in the TV programs they record of stealing from broadcast networks?
According to The Next Web's Owen Williams in a May 21, 2015, article, the problem is not that people are using ad blockers, it's that they're not using the programs correctly. AdBlock Plus, the most popular ad-blocking browser extension, and newcomer uBlock both make it easy to allow ads on a site-by-site basis (both programs are also free). In AdBlock Plus, click the ABP icon in the browser toolbar and choose "Disable on [site name]" to add the site to your whitelist. I haven't used uBlock, but according to Williams, whitelisting sites is even easier in that program.
Eyeo, the German firm behind AdBlock Plus, has been accused of extorting money from big-name web services to have them added to the program's whitelist by default. In fact, the company claims 90 percent of the sites that have joined Eyeo's Acceptable Ads program do so for free, and the other 10 percent share 30 percent of the revenue their ads generate with Eyeo. To qualify for the program, ads have to meet certain criteria, such as not including auto-play video and other active content, and not appearing over the page's non-ad content.
The fact is, somebody has to regulate online ads to protect web users from malware, unwanted tracking, and other dangers. No public or private entity has volunteered to do so. Into the void steps Eyeo and other developers of ad-blocking programs. If the ad networks and the sites that rely on the networks for their livelihood don't like people blocking their ads, maybe they should do something about it rather than simply crying about their poor, deprived children.
We want to know: Who's tracking us, what personal info are they collecting
Perhaps step one in the process of restoring the reputation of online ad networks is full disclosure: What information are you compiling about us, who are you sharing it with, and what are you all doing with our personal information?
Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center indicate that 93 percent of U.S. residents believe it is important to control who has access to their personal information (74 percent "very important" and 19 percent "somewhat important"). Similarly, 90 percent state that it is important for them to control what personal information is collected about them (65 percent "very important" and 25 percent "somewhat important").
The group we trust the least to safeguard our personal information is online advertisers: 53 percent of the survey responders said they are "not at all confident" that web advertisers protect their private data, 23 percent said they are "not too confident," 6 percent are "somewhat confident," and 1 percent are "very confident" the advertisers keep their personal info safe. The survey also found that only 9 percent of us believe we have "a lot of control" over how our personal data is collected and used, 38 percent claim to have "some control," 37 percent said they have "not much control," and 13 percent believe they have "no control."
The disconnect between what people want and how online advertisers operate is even more evident in the survey's finding that 50 percent of us don't want advertisers to retain any information about us "for any length of time," and 40 percent claim that search engines and social-media sites should not retain our personal information.
Folks, that's how they make their money, and they're not going to stop keeping a detailed record of our web activities anytime soon. We want web trackers to tell us what personal information they're collecting, how they're using the information, and who they're sharing it with. They don't. We want the trackers to dispose of the information quickly. They won't.
The only way to convince online advertisers that they have to respect our wish to maintain control over our personal information and protect our privacy is by cutting into their source of revenue. And the best way to do that is to block ads, albeit selectively to ensure the sites we frequent and trust are compensated for the services they provide. Want them to protect our privacy? Hit 'em in the pocketbook.
(A future Weekly will look at the tremendous challenges faced by those brave souls who are seeking more equitable and privacy-protecting alternatives to ads for financing web services.)