New fronts open in the battle against privacy-invading online ads
Web and mobile ads – and the companies that profit from them – are in the crosshairs of privacy advocates inside and outside government. The people who run the ad networks are finding out that the days of them having carte blanche to do as they please with our sensitive personal information are coming to an end.
It’s about damn time!
I’ve been writing about the dangers of online ads for many years. (At the end of this post you’ll find a directory of past articles on ad-related threats.) In fact, encouraging people to use ad-blocking browser extensions may have cost me my gig as a CNET how-to blogger. Yes, I understood the conflict of writing about ad blockers for a site that made its money from ads.
TechCrunch’s Anthony Ha writes in a January 20, 2016, article that Eich was motivated by a desire to prevent the most obtrusive ads from impinging on users’ browsing experience, but doing so in a way that avoids an escalating conflict between ad blockers and ad providers. Eich states on the Brave Software site that use of ad blockers can “feel like free-riding, or even starting a war.”
The Brave browser will block ads and other tracking technologies, except “native, trackerless ads,” as Ha describes them. These are ads that use only the publisher’s own data. Brave will serve up its own ads, but with a big difference: these ads will be placed in “a few standard-sizes spaces” on the page, and while there will be some targeting based on “browser-side intent signals,” they will not include a “persistent user ID or highly re-identifiable cookie.”
The revenue generated by these ads will be split with the publishers, according to Eich, beginning with 55 percent to the publisher, but ultimately reaching a 70-30 split as more people adopt the Brave browser. There’s even talk of kicking some of the ad revenue back to users via a bitcoin wallet.
Clamor grows for a kinder, gentler, saner approach to digital ads
If you don’t think web and mobile ads pose a threat, consider that Google, the emperor of online ads, blocked 780 million “bad” ads in 2015. This is a 50 percent increase from the number of ads the company blocked in 2014. As Sarah Perez reports in a January 21, 2016, article on TechCrunch, the bad ads were flagged for their “policy violations.” They include 12.5 million pharmaceutical ads (up from 9.6 million such ads in 2014) that made false or misleading claims, or that were not “approved for use.”
In addition to those promoting fraudulent goods, blocked ads were spreading malware and tricking people into downloading software they don’t want. Google’s efforts to thwart such unwanted downloads appear to be working, though. In 2014, the company blocked 250,000 sites that were dispensing malware and drive-by downloads, but in 2015, that number was slashed to about 10,000, according to Perez.
Services go ad-free, but only for their upscale customers
It’s no secret that businesses treat some customers better than others. If you’re one of the people Twitter wants to keep “engaged,” your tweet stream is served up with fewer ads, and sometimes no ads at all, as Re/code’s Peter Kafka reports in a January 25, 2016, story.
Apple’s strategy of minimizing the number of ads that display on its products could be a punch in the gut for Google, which relies almost entirely on ads for its revenue. Business Insider’s Jim Edwards writes in a January 18, 2016, article that Apple’s decision to “downgrade” its iAd mobile-ad program is part of a plan to minimize mobile ads on its devices.
Edwards cites an analysis posted by AppleInsider’s Daniel Eran Digler on January 16, 2016, that describes the battle brewing between Apple and Google. According to a report published in April 2015 by Goldman Sachs, Apple devices account for 75 percent of Google’s mobile-ad revenue, and Apple represents 13.5 percent of Google’s total revenue, which is expected to have reached $70 billion in 2015.
In a post from September 29, 2015, I wrote about the implications of Apple’s decision to allow third parties to create ad-blocking programs for iOS. Digler claims that Apple’s disdain for ads relates to its upscale customers. Just as you don’t find many billboards and other advertising in rich neighborhoods (compared to poor neighborhoods, which are plastered with ads), Apple wants to make the ads that appear on its products as unobtrusive as possible.
Edwards points out that Apple and Google are not really in the same business, but that doesn’t mean they’re not competitors, and not just in terms of Android vs. iOS. So if you get more ads on an Android device than you see on your iPhone or iPad, the message is that Android is Baltic Avenue and iOS is Park Place. Maybe that distinction extends in people’s minds to each company’s other products.
Government calls for consumer controls over data collection
The story goes, we pay for “free” services by surrendering our personal information. The personal information becomes a commodity that is converted into revenue via ads, primarily. So effective ads are a key component of the Internet economy. That’s the deal, and most of us understand it, more or less, despite a near-complete absence of transparency.
What do consumers want? According to Julie Brill of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “advertising that respects their privacy and that they can trust.” Ad Exchange’s Ryan Joe reports in a January 22, 2016, article on Commissioner Brill’s address at a recent ad-industry event in New York City. Of particular concern to privacy advocates is cross-device tracking, which ties your Internet history with your mobile activity.
Brill asks, “How can consumers knowingly bargain for free content without actually knowing what they are giving up, to whom and for what purpose?” That is the precise question I pose in “Reclaim your personal information.”
As more people come to distrust online ad networks, ad blocking rates increase. One way to beat ad blockers is with native advertising, which doesn’t appear to be advertising at all – at least not to ad blockers. The problem is, consumers don’t identify them as ads, either, which is misleading.
The ad industry’s previous attempts at delivering informed choice options for consumers have failed to win over privacy advocates. For example, the Digital Advertising Agency’s AdChoices program is called “cumbersome” and ineffective by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Peter Eckersley, Rainey Reitman, and Alan Toner in an August 8, 2015, post. Worst of all, according to the EFF, AdChoices doesn’t stop the tracking.
One of the best things about the Internet is that it’s a ground-up phenomenon. According to online research firm GlobalWebIndex, the percentage of people using ad-blocking software increased from 28 percent through the first three quarters of 2015 to 38 percent in the fourth quarter of the year. MediaLife Magazine’s Toni Fitzgerald writes about the survey in a January 26, 2016, article. Likewise, ad blocking is now as prevalent on mobile devices as it is on desktops and laptops, according to the Guardian’s Jasper Jackson in another January 26, 2016, article.
At the same time, ads aren’t going anywhere. Facebook just announced that the company is expanding its ad network to mobile sites, as the Wall Street Journal’s Jack Marshall reports in yet another January 26, 2016, article. And ClickZ’s Yuyu Chen writes in a January 6, 2016, article that in-app ads are seen as the future of mobile revenue.
It looks like it’s going to require an intervention to prevent the digital ad industry from slaying the goose that laid the golden egg by trampling all over our privacy.
Previous posts related to online advertising
Consumers may be ready to pay for an ad-free, tracking-free Internet, November 18, 2015
Ad blocking as a political statement, October 6, 2015
Google, Android, ads, and a tech titan’s revenge, September 29, 2015
Why targeted advertising is doomed, September 22, 2015
Online advertisers feel the heat from increased use of ad blockers, September 15, 2015
Online ad networks take more liberties, July 28, 2015
Google caught in the middle of the ad-blocking war, June 16, 2015
When web ads attack: Web ad networks battle the blockers, May 26, 2015
Big-name ad networks serve up malware, May 12, 2015
Web ads are indistinguishable from spyware, April 28, 2015
More reasons why you need to block web ads, April 7, 2015
Browse better with these three essential freebies, plus one valuable cheapie, February 10, 2015 (ad-blocking browser extensions)
How Google, Facebook, and Twitter make billions by offering free services, December 2, 2014
Instant access to all your recent files, October 6, 2014 (scroll to “Malicious ads strike again”)
Facebook’s latest shenanigans, July 1, 2014 (scroll to “Google may exaggerate the effectiveness of search ads”)
A micropayment alternative to privacy-sucking ads, June 10, 2014
Free browser extensions give ads the boot, June 10, 2014 (includes links to browser security tips)
U.S. Senate: Self-regulation of online ad networks isn’t working, June 10, 2014
Online advertising dangers, June 10, 2014
Claim a property interest in your personal information, June 10, 2014
Protect your device from malicious ads, April 10, 2014