Future Tense

I Use an Ad Blocker to Stop Third Parties From Tracking My Web Browsing. I’m Not Sorry.

Who’s watching where you’re going?

Image by kpatyhka/Shutterstock

To my friends in the news business: Yes, I block your advertising, or at least some of it. Yes, I block your videos, or at least some of them. Yes, I block you and your business “partners” from tracking my every online move.

And yes, I recognize that this may cause you some financial difficulties. But you’ve given me little choice. Blame yourselves, not your audience.

I’m among the growing legions of people who are fed up with what you and the advertising business have done to my online experience. To sum up, you’ve damn near ruined it.

Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t hate advertising. In some cases I welcome it. For example, I subscribe to several magazines about the GNU/Linux operating system and other free and open-source software, and their advertising, in print and online, is highly relevant to my interests in this arena. I also recognize that ads are one of the many revenue streams news organizations need to pay for journalism. (Supporting journalism only through advertising, however, is not a great long-range strategy.)

The problem is that the advertising ecosystem has spun wildly out of control. As knowledgeable critics have pointed out, it’s more often a giant mess: megabytes of junkware loaded onto Web pages, slowing our browsing to a crawl and spying on us in ways that we can’t possibly understand, much less condone.

It’s especially obnoxious for media organizations to install countless trackers even when I pay subscription fees. That seems like punishment for doing the right thing.

And it’s getting worse. A new report claims publishers and ad companies are losing billions to the countermeasures that I and so many others have deployed: browser plugins that block ads and trackers. Not only do I prevent the mysterious tracking companies from spying on me, but I also get faster-loading, slimmed-down pages. And I’m far, far from alone; blocking ads and trackers has become a significant value-add for millions of users, even if it’s a value-subtract for the media industry.

I’m uncomfortable with my stance in some ways, because I don’t want to harm people’s ability to create useful information. So I understand when sites don’t work as well—I’m never clear if this is retaliation or just loss of functionality. And it’s entirely fair for sites to remind me that I’m blocking ads and ask me to kindly unblock the ads or subscribe. (Sometimes I do.)

The advertising and tracking industries, abetted by telecommunications carriers, are investing in all kinds of technologies aimed at thwarting users’ wishes to retain some control over their online activities, including “super-cookies” from two mobile providers. Verizon actually launched this feature, and AT&T tested it, but they backed down after the public and privacy advocates discovered what was going on. We can count on these industries to push harder and more sneakily to prevent us from avoiding their grip.

There was a moment of hope when an initiative called “Do Not Track” appeared several years ago. The idea was that our browsers would come with an option to ask companies to honor our request that we not be spied on by third parties. (I have no objection when a site I’m visiting puts a software cookie on my computer so it knows when I return—that’s different than third-party trackers that follow you around the Internet.) Unfortunately, the Web industry as a whole reacted by essentially ignoring the user requests.

Contempt for user privacy is the norm, of course. This is why the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other groups gave up recently on supposed negotiations to create a voluntary code of conduct for the use of facial-recognition technologies—negotiations, convened by federal authorities, in which the tech industry flatly refused to consider any limitations at all. This is why I have my doubts about a new Do Not Track proposal being pushed by the EFF and others, because I zero faith in the ad/tracking industry’s willingness to compromise.

The online industry could do better, notes writer and programmer Marco Arment:

It has never been easier to collect small direct payments online, cutting out the advertising middlemen and selling directly to your true customers. For publishers who want to remain ad-supported, ethically and tastefully presented native advertising, such as sponsored posts in feeds and our community’s podcast ads, has proven to be more effective, more profitable, and less user-hostile by far compared to awful network