There are No Acceptable Ads

| 25 minutes | comments

England 1835, by John Orlando Parry
England 1835, by John Orlando Parry

The attention economy, and targeted advertising, are a first world problem, one that we have to deal with, because it’s affecting our well-being. In this article I’m arguing why there is no such thing as “acceptable ads” on the Internet. It doesn’t matter if the user’s data is transmitted on the Internet, or processed client-side. What matters is the end result, and the way I see it, we are headed towards a dystopia, facilitated by targeting algorithms.


Consumer’s Perspective #

When asked what’s the problem with advertising, especially online advertising, these are the problems that are mentioned:

  • ads are annoying / disruptive;
  • privacy violations;
  • distribution of malware and scams, aka malvertising;
  • imperceptible behavior changes;

In this list, privacy violations are the most severe, yet the most subtle. It won’t be long before your online profile will influence your credit score, or the price of your life or health insurance, or the price of your Uber ride. There are more ways to discriminate based on someone’s online profile than people think.

Yet, even without the privacy violations, ads hurt people, and there have been many initiatives trying to fix these issues, or at least paying lip service:

Yet these only fix the symptoms, not the disease. The problem is actually the whole incentive structure. Advertising-driven business models fuel the attention economy.

Our attention is treated as a scarce commodity, with publishers and advertisers competing for our attention. In fairness this has been happening since the dawn of the print media and the TV, except now advertisers and publishers have the means to track the actions of “users”, and algorithms capable of modifying the behavior of people via individualized experiences, at scale, in order to grab more and more of our attention, and to sell it to the highest bidder, or to convince others to participate. If you ask people, most will say that filter bubbles are a good thing. Who wouldn’t want a feed of news that’s “individualized”? Except that this individualization is not for our own benefit, and does not bring us more peace of mind, but rather population studies point to more outrage, depression, misinformation. So who benefits from filter bubbles? By all indications, it doesn’t seem to be us, the consumers.

When was the last time you’ve used a free, ads-driven app that made you waste less time with your devices? You won’t see such unicorns in the real world, because the serving of ads automatically means entering a competition for your attention, whatever it takes.

There are only two industries that refer to their customers as ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” — Edward Tufte

In the new breed of privacy-preserving advertising products, we should be wary when the value proposition is that ads can be targeted on the client-side, and that analytics can be collected, conversions can be tracked, all while preserving the privacy of people. Because, even if technology can ensure that our privacy is respected, this does nothing to the incentive structure.

I don’t want any relevant ads, or any ads-driven products, ever. Other people might feel differently, but collecting the data is only half the problem. That data can be abused, even if only client-side … for example targeting could exploit your midlife crisis, to get you to buy stuff you don’t need, or to convince you to not go to vote, by serving you with individualized fake news, all while reading an article that exposes your political bias. The whole point of ads is to change your behavior, if only slightly, with organizations literally bidding for your attention, and then playing mind tricks, which work because unfortunately our critical thinking often fails us.

We can all see the effects of the attention economy. For example social networks are optimized for fake news, for the sole reason that this increases user engagement. It’s not something that stakeholders wanted on purpose, there are no evil laughs at Facebook’s or Google’s headquarters, but it’s what happened due to repeated micro-optimizations of revenue, due to perverse incentives driven by the business model. And while stake-holders pay lip service to the need to deal with fake news, that will never happen in any meaningful way, just like how Google won’t ever get rid of the SEO spammers. Doing that will mean affecting the bottom line negatively, so they’ll just do the minimum it takes for improving their image.

Information may want to be free in a Star Trek utopia in which food is information that gets materialized out of thin air too, but in the meantime there’s no free lunch, and this ideology has brought much harm to creators and consumers alike. High-quality information is not free to produce, the servers hosting that information aren’t free to run. And because the Wikipedia model can’t be easily replicated (i.e. big enough to successfully beg for donations, general enough that anybody can contribute), an ads-driven economy was selected as the best choice, shaping the Internet as we know it.

A funny, yet sad observation is that outside of the software industry only drug dealers refer to people as “users”. If you’re not paying, then you’re the product, and the perverse incentives are always there. Getting you addicted to using the service is the general strategy, as increasing screen time generates more revenue, whether you’re blocking those ads, or not.

Getting rid of “bad actors” won’t solve the problem. The coalitions and solutions I’ve seen are just band-aids, applied to a cancer that’s getting worse.

We can certainly choose to block ads via browser extensions, Pi-hole setups, etc. And I’m a big fan of ads-blocking solutions (see below). But the truth is we’re still participating in the attention economy by giving our attention, by producing free content, by fueling the outrage machine, which attracts more eyeballs, which leads to more ads being served. There’s nothing that can fix it, except for the online ads-driven business models to fail, and for alternative business models to flourish.

In this transition there might be collateral damage … if content stops being ads-driven, some of it may stop being free, and not all people will afford to pay for it. The poor might not be able to afford subscriptions to their favorite content. I am not convinced, however, that such a world will be any worse for the poor. And even if the poor will be affected, access to some content could be paid for out of taxes. We don’t have ads-driven public schools, and even thinking about it sounds horrible. This is a red herring.

Publisher’s Perspective #

Poor poet, a painting by Carl Spitzweg
"Poor poet" by Carl Spitzweg

Publishers need good options for building revenue streams. As a society we should want that content creators get rewarded for the good content they produce.

And they can just ask for money. Asking for cash in exchange for goods and services works, even in the Internet age. For professionals this could mean a subscription model, or selling books, or merchandise. For amateurs producing the occasional article or video, this could mean asking for donations via Patreon or PayPal. If people aren’t willing to do that, then maybe the content is not valuable. The supply must meet the demand.

But note the incentive structure in this case — if you’re not getting paid to create, then you shift your focus such that people are willing to pay actual money. You get better at producing content people are willing to pay for, instead of becoming good at producing content that attracts eyeballs. The difference might be subtle, but it changes the world.

People will also pay for convenience, and there are online services that prove this. In spite of rampaging piracy, many people prefer to pay for Netflix, Spotify, YouTube Premium, Kindle, Audible, NY Times, etc. I’m not saying that some of these services I mentioned don’t have problems (like poor compensation for content creators), but they are proof that freemium isn’t the only choice. And in all fairness, some are businesses built with DRM technologies, which have been deployed to prevent piracy, but have the nasty side effect of birthing natural monopolies. Yet such monopolies can be broken with legislation, because the fix is simple (data portability), and in the EU at least there are precedents.

Advertiser’s Perspective #

Carpet Seller, by Ettore Forti

Marketing and advertising is all about communication. Companies should be allowed to position themselves in the market, and to communicate about their product to the world. Advertising is speech. Consumers don’t have to listen to the message though, free speech is a double edged knife.

Whenever new products happen, how else would consumers find out about it, if not by advertising? Or so the saying goes.

Advertising is an “inbound marketing” strategy. You communicate to the world who you are, and then hope that your message directs people to you. Businesses feel the need for advertisement in order to get the word out. Having participated in startups, I truly understand this desire, and there’s no doubt in my mind that advertising will continue to play some role in our economy, in spite of my wishes to the contrary.

Disclaimer: I used to work in the advertising industry, in my not so distant past. I worked on a platform for serving personalized mobile ads. Then I worked on anti-ad-blocking tech. I’ve been in that industry, thinking that we’re fighting for the small companies trying to make a living, or to get the word out … and it never felt right.

Great products and services have been successful via word of mouth. This is what “viral marketing” means: to get people to talk about your products. And there are marketing tactics that don’t involve tricking people into changing their behavior. Conventional advertising is better than the targeted variety, because it’s not individualized. At least everybody is seeing the shit that you’re seeing.

Although one problem is there is no such thing as a non-intrusive ad. A non-intrusive ad is no ad.

Link (Vimeo)

So what should companies do? Truth is, this is simply not our problem, and frankly, no company is entitled to our attention or data. And I’m done giving the benefit of the doubt to advertisers. I have trouble remembering the last time I’ve seen a useful ad. Whenever I need something, I do an Internet search (with ads blocked), I look for reviews, or I ask for recommendations.

You know how the unethical behavior of companies is always excused via the need of shareholders to make money? Well, this goes both ways. We, the consumers, we aren’t running charities, and it isn’t our job to save dying business models.

Q & A #

The Fall of the Rebel Angels, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
"The Fall of the Rebel Angels" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

What about first-party contextual ads? #

Ads could be served based on just the content being viewed right now, with no need to keep a user history and profile. This takes care of the privacy concerns. Ads can also be first-party, and this matters because your data is no longer shared, and the service provider has better quality control for the ads being shown (versus going through an RTB platform). Thus the risk of malvertising, and of scams goes down. This is what TV stations and newspapers have always done, certain shows appealing to certain demographics, with the ads selected to match that.

But conventional ads are problematic as well, for all of the above reasons. All that targeting does is to take it to the next level. I would admit conventional ads, for all the reasons mentioned above (advertising is speech, etc), except that there’s less oversight on the Internet. And the medium is more complicated. How do you know which ads are targeted and which ads aren’t? How do you know before loading the page? You don’t. Even if we had some sort of whitelist for “acceptable ads”, the problem is that code downloaded on your computer can do anything, with no way to review it; and third-party requests can always be disguised as first-party ones. You have to trust the advertising companies, and our trust has been violated again and again.

Scams can happen via conventional ads as well, the incentive structure for advertising-driven businesses is still there, and it isn’t unreasonable to not want any ads, ever.

At the moment of writing, in Romania I’m seeing ads for “cheap Windows 10 licenses” all over the place, even as advertorials published by respectable publications, as first-party articles. It’s a clear scam, there are now dozens of companies founded over night, illegally selling what are basically MSDN AA activation codes for Windows, and I’ve reported dozens, without any outcome. Facebook thanks me, eMAG (our local Amazon) thanks me, local publications all thanked me for my report, but the ads are still up! Don’t even get me started on the cryptocoin scams, which are promoted even by the supposedly ethical advertising networks.

No, the time for this distinction is long gone, and IMO trust cannot be re-established. Online, it’s simpler and far more effective if we treat all ads as targeted, privacy-invading, intrusive scams. Screw them all.

Won’t the rejection of ads affect the health of the Internet? #

Technical folks that are pro-advertisement, are expressing their views from behind ads-blockers, a clear double standard. Given the choice between receiving ads and receiving no ads, a vast majority of people would pick the no-ads option. Nobody wants ads, unless forced, either because there’s no other clear choice, or because the price of the no-ads option is too high.

The evolution and use of ads-blockers is just another way to “vote with your wallet”. Many people will block ads with their ads-blocker, but at the same time feel guilty about it, then advise other people to accept ads, because it’s for the health of the Internet. This is a side effect of many IT people working in the advertisement industry, the elephant in the room. And the people that should subsidize the Internet for the elite, are the technologically illiterate.

If browsers would have a business model that did not depend on advertisement, then those browsers would ship with an aggressive ads-blocker enabled by default, simply because it makes the experience much better. There’s absolutely no browser that does this, all browser vendors earn a lot of money from ads, and this includes Apple, Microsoft, Brave, Vivaldi, DuckDuckGo, Samsung, all of them.

Could it affect the health of the Internet? Yes, without ads the Internet can get better.

Solutions #

Pay for consumed goods & services #

If you’re not paying, you are the product.

If I enjoy something, when given the choice, I pay for it and I recommend this to others. The act of exchanging cash for goods and services works well, and incentivizes good behavior, because the act of paying is the benchmark that companies then use, instead of your attention.

I subscribed to YouTube Premium Family because I don’t want my son to be exposed to ads. The number of requests for useless crap that my son wants has dropped dramatically since then. The subscription might have saved money.

I also pay for Google’s Play Pass, because it has a couple of nice games that are not ads-driven, and are not pay-to-win. My son is enjoying it thus far, and even I wasted time lately with some games (such as Action Squad). It’s still a work in progress, and I hope Google doesn’t abandon it, like everything else they do these days. Apple Arcade is the more evolved equivalent for iOS.

I’m also subscribed to Spotify, Netflix, HBO GO. I don’t have a TV in my room anymore. My son still has one in his room, for watching cartoons, but everyone in my household is increasingly online.

I’ve been using Downpour for DRM-free audiobooks. I prefer non-DRM content, and I circumvent the DRM for any occasional Kindle or Audible purchase.

I’m subscribed to the NY Times, but if you do this, don’t give them your Credit Card! Subscribe via PayPal instead, because they are being dicks on un-subscriptions, forcing people to jump through hoops, and with PayPal you can just disable the automatic payment with a click. Do this for all newspaper subscriptions, not just for NY Times, to avoid being hostage to their shitty subscription systems. Revolut’s virtual cards are also an option.

I never install ads-enabled apps on my mobile devices. If there’s an ads-free version, I go with that instead. Or if I need an ads-enabled service, I use it from the browser — e.g. Twitter, on both iOS and Android.

Block all ads #

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, by Jacques-Louis David

Even if we admit that some ads are fine, in some contexts, we don’t know which ads are targeted and which ads aren’t, we don’t know which ads are malvertising, or which ads play mind tricks, and we can’t know that before loading the page. Even if we had a whitelist of “acceptable ads”, it’s still code downloaded from the Internet that we can’t trust, it’s still intrusive, it’s still fueling the attention economy, it’s still driving you to buy things you don’t need, or to do things that you don’t want. And we want publishers to take responsibility for the created mess.

Publishers are not entitled to run code on our computers, and we can’t know in advance if a web page will serve any ads or not. It’s my computer, my “user agent”. If publishers have a problem with that, then they can block me. Anti-ad-blocking tech, that can detect ad-blockers, already exists (this being a constant arms race). For me that would be a clear signal that the website is serving ads, and that I’m not wanted, then I’d go somewhere else.

Block them all!

For all devices (DNS) #

DNS blocking works very well. At least until devices or apps will start using DNS-over-HTTPS with their own servers (e.g. TikTok).

If you like self-hosting stuff, you could setup a Pi-hole. For a managed service, I prefer NextDNS. I’ve also heard of AdGuard DNS, but I’ve never tried it.

The advantage is that by making your router serve these DNS servers (via DHCP), all the devices connected to your Wi-fi will be protected. Smart TVs, Playstation, mobile devices, etc.

Desktop / laptop #

The best combination is Firefox + uBlock Origin + Privacy Badger.

TIP: in uBlock Origin’s settings, go to “Filter lists” and enable “AdGuard Annoyances + “uBlock Annoyances”. This will also get rid of many cookie banners.

uBlock Origin is the most aggressive solution for blocking ads, and it works best in Firefox, because it can protect against CNAME cloacking (third-party requests disguised as first-party). At the time of writing, Google is going ahead with Manifest v3.

Soon uBlock Origin won’t work in Chromium-based browsers anymore. Forks, such as Microsoft’s Edge, or Brave, might claim that they’re going to keep compatibility with Manifest v2, but that implies extra resources on rebasing, and while it’s a useful marketing stunt, it’s simply not in their interest to do so, long term. Or even doable, including the fact that all Chromium-based browsers are still dependent on Chrome’s Web Store.

Ditch Chrome and Chromium-based browsers now, because later you might not have the choice.

Android #

Firefox (Fenix) + uBlock Origin + Privacy Badger. The new Firefox for Android works well, and has good performance. You’ll have to forgive some quirks, or some missing features (compared to the old Firefox), but overall it’s Android’s best browser.

If you’d like a Chrome-based browser, Vivaldi is a decent one, and has an ads-blocker built-in.

Alternatively, you could try AdGuard, but personally I don’t like it, seems too intrusive. The upside is that it would work with Chrome, and it can get rid of in-app advertisement as well, allegedly. And Pi-hole or NextDNS (already mentioned above) are always options.

iPhone / iOS #

Safari + Wipr is the best I’ve found.

Safari has some privacy features baked in, like blocking tracking cookies. What’s cool is that in iOS 14 this feature works in all web views, so it is being inherited in all alternative browsers as well. Content blockers don’t work in alterantive browsers though.

I personally use Firefox for iOS, with “strict” trackers blocking enabled, in combination with Pi-hole / NextDNS. I prefer Firefox because it syncs my history and bookmarks, otherwise Safari does a better job (due to ability to use content blockers, such as Wipr).

Avoid Brave, the browser #

Screenshot shown on Brave's website, showing a contextual ad, which might as well be a scam.
Screenshot from Brave's website, showing a contextual ad, which might as well be a scam.

Brave is a browser with built-in blocking of trackers and ads. They do this in the name of privacy.

Brave doesn’t block first-party ads by default, as a policy. They don’t block Google Search, Twitter or Facebook ads. Cosmetic blocking is severely restricted, especially on mobile devices. And it doesn’t have the option to add custom third-party lists, in addition to Brave’s sanctioned ones. On mobile phones at least, there’s nothing you can do to block first-party ads.

This hasn’t been a technical limitation, but company policy. They will correct this, once people realize that Brave is not very effective at blocking ads, but it does show that the incentives don’t align with those of consumers. Quick, who wants Google Search, Facebook or Twitter ads?

Brave serves ads, and they claim that their ads are opt-in, but this is doublespeak. Advertised images in the New Tab screen are opt-out. Creepy integrations with third-parties (e.g. scammy crypto stuff), pushed down on their users’ throats with every release, are also opt-out. Their new “Brave Today” feature, that shows news on the New Tab page, has ads for Amazon products using Brave’s affiliate tag.

Brave makes money only by serving ads, and in the long run making features opt-out, or making users accept ads via dark patterns, is a natural consequence. Case in point. And except for the people dreaming of becoming Internet-billionaires with the next Bitcoin-wannabe, who wants Brave’s ads anyway?

In my tests, mobile Brave’s ads-blocking is no better than mobile Chrome coupled with Pi-hole or NextDNS (for DNS-level ads-blocking). And on iOS, Safari + Wipr is much better, which is quite the feat, given Safari’s limited content blocking capabilities. Firefox + uBlock Origin is miles better. And any performance claims for Brave’s content blocking, being supposedly “native”, is bullshit.

But don’t trust me. You can run the benchmarks yourself.

Brave proposes a way to reward content authors via BAT, which is Internet fun money, aka cryptocurrency. They do this by blocking the publisher’s ads, and then serving their own ads, without the publisher’s consent. The user gets credits, which they can redistribute to publishers based on attention given. BAT comes from “basic attention token”. Attention is what Brave sells. I’ll say this in favor of Brave … at least it pretends that consumers get compensated for their data, thus acknowledging what the product is, and who the customers really are.

Brave purports to serve ads based on the user’s interests, which is either via client-side profiling, or via what they currently consume. This means that Brave’s ads engine piggy-backs on the content being viewed, to optimize those ads, while blocking the publisher’s own ads. In spite of them claiming that ads are not “replaced”, this is the net effect. And if the publisher wants a cut, then they need to become partners. While “rewards” and ads may be opt-in for users, those ads are not opt-in for publishers, leaving publishers that don’t want any ads near their websites in an awkward position. If there ever was a case for ads-blocking to be considered copyright infringement, this is it.

Brave is an advertising platform. They want to be a middleman between users and advertisers. Yes, other browsers survive via ads too, we already know Mozilla has a complicated relationship with Google for example, but Brave is the only browser with ambitions to be an advertising platform. You’d be trusting an advertising company with the preservation of your privacy, what could go wrong 🤯

I also have a nagging suspicion that Internet fun money (cryptocurrency) will never be a good substitute for micro-transactions with actual money, being more often than not genuine Ponzi schemes, but this prediction may not age well 🤷‍♂️

From the web:

Final Words #

While I understand the need for advertisement in this current climate, I want the entire targeted advertising industry to die. And I will block all ads without shame. Companies are not entitled to my attention, or data. And given the track record of the advertising industry, I will do whatever it takes to protect my family, and advise others to do the same.

Further reading:


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Tags: Browser | Personal | Privacy | Web