Consumers may be ready to pay for an ad-free, tracking-free Internet
Oh, those wily online advertisers. They’ve figured out a way to use inaudible “audio beacons” to track our activities across devices: computers, phones, tablets, televisions, e-readers, you name it.
In a November 13, 2015, article, Ars Technica’s Dan Goodin explains how companies are able to track people across their devices by emitting a sound that humans can’t hear but your devices pick up. The sound triggers the devices to link their cookies and other tracking data. In comments filed with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (pdf), the Center for Democracy and Technology warned that companies implementing audio-beacon tracking know which ads a person saw, how long they viewed the ad, what type of device they used, and other information.
All the tracking is done without the person’s knowledge, at least in the U.S. As Goodin notes, U.S. residents have no way to block or opt out of the cross-device tracking. The FTC held a workshop recently to discuss privacy and tracking matters, as Advertising Age’s Kate Kaye reports in a November 16, 2015, article. FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez stated that cross-device tracking creates a “a risk of unexpected and unwelcome use of [sensitive personal] data.”
The Digital Advertising Alliance proposes that any company collecting consumer information be required to disclose their activities clearly and unambiguously, including a link to the opt-out option. Ramirez pointed out that few of these services make it possible to opt out of the collection. Even when they do, consumers have to opt out service-by-service and device-by-device – there is no global opt-out ability.
Paying to ‘minimize’ data collection
One avenue Ramirez recommended we explore is data minimization, which restricts the type and amount of data that is collected and retained for longer than is required to complete the immediate transaction. It could be that the only way to minimize personal data collection is to pay for the privilege of using Web services without being served up ads, and without being tracked by advertisers and who-knows-what other entities.
There are signs that people are more willing than ever to pay a small amount to do away with some ads and tracking. CNBC’s Harriet Taylor reports in a November 9, 2015, article that Google is beta testing Google Contributor, a service that removes from 5 percent to 50 percent of the ads served to people’s computers and devices for a monthly fee of $2 to $10. Some of the fee is paid to the sites the people visit. However, the site being paid must use AdSense or DoubleClick for Publishers.
The increased willingness of web service users to pay for fewer ads and less tracking is one of the trends identified in Forrester Research’s 2016 privacy report. Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo states that consumers benefit from paying for services because they switch from being “users” to being “customers.” This gives them more status when dealing with the company, including holding the service more accountable, according to Khatibloo.
The services stand to benefit from the transition away from ads and toward payments. For example, Facebook’s average revenue per user (ARPU) is $3 overseas and $9 in the U.S. However, research indicates that Facebook users in the U.S. would be willing to pay from $30 to $60 a year for an ad-free, tracking-free version of the service. Similarly, Facebook users in Europe and Asia are amenable to paying a small monthly fee to go ad-free.
Another trend identified by Forrester is the increasing use of ad blockers. Khatibloo warns that unless web advertisers “fix the ad ecosystem” that currently does so much to spoil the user experience, they’ll find the “behavioral advertising revenue model” coming apart at the seams.
(By the way, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is the latest person to recommend that everyone use an ad-blocking extension. As Independent.ie’s Sarah-Jane Murphy writes in a November 17, 2015, article, Snowden claims that it is our “duty” to prevent attacks by malicious ads and unauthorized sharing of the ad networks’ tracking information.)
Before you donate to a charity this holiday season, make sure the recipient isn't on the Tampa Bay Times’ list of America’s 25 worst charities, as reported in a November 14, 2015, post on AlterNet by Daily Kos’s Leslie Salzillo. Some of the organizations on the list pay 0 dollars directly to the cause they claim to be helping, despite having names such as the Kids Wish Network, Cancer Fund of America, and Project Cure. (Back in December 2013, I wrote about the Charity Navigator site that lets you vet organizations before you donate to them.)
Shopping for health plans? Go silver. ‘Tis also the season to shop for healthcare plans. Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum writes in a November 15, 2015, article that the lowest-cost Bronze plans are in fact no bargain at all because of their sky-high deductibles. Drum points out that for most people, the Silver plans are much better deals despite having slightly higher premiums because their deductibles are a fraction of their bronze counterparts.