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Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet

by onkar

On September 29, 2015, Techdirt posted “You Can Now Turn Off Ads On Techdirt,” explaining all the reasons why they were granting readers the power to not see ads. Perhaps most telling was this line: “We’re going to allow you to decide how you best want to support this site and trust you to figure out the best way, rather than forcing the choice upon you.” But note who still holds the power, or agency, in this non-negotiation: it’s the publisher, not the reader.

Among the well over 100 comments that followed, nearly all were approving, though less of Techdirt’s policy than of the ad and tracking blockers readers already had in place. One wrote:

There’s lots of good reasons to block ads. Security… the datamining, and the idea I’m a walking wallet. I know how to look up what I need or want. But in today’s world, you can’t turn around and take a breath without someone trying to be in your face with a commercial. It’s overkill to the point of being sickening.

None of the ad companies want to talk about how they sabotaged ‘Do Not Track’ or how they ignore this and use your bandwidth for their greedy purposes. Ok, so now it’s my turn to deal with it; and I do. I’ll remove from view floating nav bars that eat up viewing space, icons and connections for facebook, google, twitter, and the rest that want to track you. Block dataminers that want to slow down your surfing and use your bandwidth to gather data.

Another wrote:

What’s the point of a user setting? Wouldn’t it be easier all around to just tell people who don’t want to see ads to install an ad blocker and let them know that you are OK with that?

For all its good intentions, Techdirt is still at the denial stage of grief over its own lost power — and over power gains by readers equipped with ad blockers.

This is but a small skirmish in the larger Adblock Wars. To a striking extent, readers (customers, consumers, citizens — i.e., you and I) have taken charge of our interactions with publishers and other vendors in the marketplace, and this trend will only continue — with paradigm-shifting results. Below, I sketch the outlines of this shift.

The numbers are telling. According to PageFair and Adobe’s 2015 Global Adblocking Report, “there are now 198 million active adblock users around the world.” Adblocking, it says, “grew by 41% globally in the last 12 months,” with annual growth rates of 48% in the U.S. and 82% in the U.K. By now the number must be north of 200 million worldwide. If this be a boycott, it’s surely the largest in human history.


The New Tools of Marketing
How leading companies connect with customers.
Yet ad blockers have been around almost as long as online advertising — certainly as long as we’ve had browser add-ons and extensions. So why has ad blocking become so popular, so fast? In a word, tracking.

When you go to a website, you’re looking for what publishers call “content,” which could be almost anything. I say “almost,” because one thing you’re not looking for is to be marked and tracked like an animal when you leave the site. But that’s what you get when you visit most advertising-supported commercial websites, whether you want it or not. And tracking has become steadily more prevalent as marketing’s appetite for “big data” and “personalized” ad messages has grown from hunger to gluttony.

This is exactly what Shoshana Zuboff’s three laws (first issued in the 1980s) predicted:
First, that everything that can be automated will be automated. Second, that everything that can be informated will be informated. And most important to us now, the third law: In the absence of countervailing restrictions and sanctions, every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention.

The FTC saw this happening already in 2007 and proposed “to create a national Do Not Track List similar to the national Do Not Call list.” In 2009, Christopher Soghoian, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and Sid Stamm, a privacy engineer at Mozilla, created a prototype Do Not Track add-on for Mozilla’s Firefox web browser. Soon Microsoft and Apple built support for Do Not Track in their Web browsers. Google followed in 2012.

Unfortunately, none of that mattered, because Do Not Track was just a request in the form of an “http header” spoken by the browser. In obedience to Zuboff’s Laws, most publishers and advertisers chose to ignore that request. The result was this:


Using the search terms “ad blocker” and “Do Not Track,” we see that interest in Do Not Track trailed off while interest in ad blockers hockey-sticked. As did use. (See PageFair’s 2013 and 2014 reports)

Not coincidentally, in this time frame we also saw the explosion of what the trade calls adtech — a catch-all term for the collection of tools and practices behind behavioral advertising: behavioral targeting, deal ID, real-time messaging, clickstream data, retargeting, etc. None of the tools in adtech’s shed are more revealing of surveillance than retargeting. When ads for the boots you saw for sale at Site A follow you to Sites B, C, and D, that’s retargeting at work. Not surprisingly, here is how interest in “retargeting” tracked along with “how to block ads”:


Ad blocking at this stage is mostly prophylaxis. But it is also a demonstration of unprecedented individual agency in the online world, and a shift in power dynamics, from the supply side to the demand side. Before ad blocking, individuals had little choice about taking or leaving what websites gave them. Now they can selectively choose what they allow websites to put in their browsers, which are people’s main vehicles for traveling online. They also have their first crude instrument for expressing demand.

At the very least, ad blocking brings bargaining power to the marketplace. We already see this at work with Adblock Plus’s whitelisting of ads that meet the criteria of its Acceptable Ads Manifesto. Those criteria allow ads that “are not annoying,” “do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read,” “are transparent with us about being an ad,” “are effective without shouting at us,” and “are appropriate to the site that we are on.” Whitelisting is switched on by default with Adblock Plus, though it can be turned off. (There is also controversy around Adblock Plus’s business, which involves taking money from some whitelisted companies.)

In August, Apple disclosed developer support for “Content Blocking” on its new mobile operating system, IOS 9. As soon as IOS 9 became available the next month, the top app downloads were for ad blockers. Expect other forms of content blocking to follow. And don’t expect the blocking to stop at ads.

For example, look for new ways of setting terms of engagement that we each assert in our dealings online. In the past we had to accept the one-sided terms provided by websites and services. With the power to block content selectively, we can signal not only what we don’t want, but what we want and expect from the supply side of the marketplace.

Customer Commons and others in the VRM (vendor relationship management) development community are also working on terms that only start with tracking preferences. These can expand to include conditions for voluntary data sharing, expressing buying interests, and providing standard means for connecting with loyalty programs, call centers and other CRM (customer relationship management) systems on the vendors’ side. Expect to see plenty of news about these and other expressions of individual agency online over the coming months.

Naturally, these will have important effects. Three stand out:
The adtech bubble will burst. In October, executives with two of the largest publishers told me they are contemplating moves to back away from adtech. One of the biggest adtech spenders also told me they just dropped many millions of dollars in annual adtech spending. When these moves, and others like them, become public knowledge, expect to see surveillance-based marketing take a dive.
Terms by which individuals deal with companies will solidify. Once that happens, we can expect The Intention Economy to unfold. This is an economy driven more by actual customer intentions than by expensive marketing guesswork.
The new frontier of marketing will be service, not sales. Or, in the parlance of CRM, retention rather than acquisition. Additionally, as business becomes more subscription-based, service becomes dramatically linked to continuing revenue. This is a huge greenfield that will grow as more, and better, intelligence starts to flow back and forth between customers and companies.
After that, we’ll remember the adblock war as just another milestone in the short history of the internet. Post-war reconstruction, in this case, will begin with productive means of engagement, especially around maximizing agency on the demand side of the marketplace, and adjustments in supply to meet new and better-equipped forms of demand.

And if you’re worried about publishers and advertisers surviving, remember that publishers got along fine before there was adtech, and for most companies advertising is just one form of overhead. They can spend that money lots of other ways — including new ways they couldn’t see when they thought the supply side of the marketplace was running the whole show.


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