/ Cory Doctorow / 9 am Wed, Mar 2 2016
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  • Some ad-blockers are tracking you, shaking down publishers, and showing you ads

    Some ad-blockers are tracking you, shaking down publishers, and showing you ads

    The ad-subsidized Web is at a crossroads: faced with pressure from social media platform, publishers are accepting ever-more-intrusive ads, which combine with the mounting public concern over privacy and tracking to encourage ad-blocking, which, in turn, makes publishers more desperate and more biddable to the darkest surveillance and pop-up desires of advertisers.

    Wired recently started an anti-ad-blocking campaign that attempts to prevent ad-blocked users from reading articles unless they pay a monthly subscription fee. On the heels of this decision comes a roundup of the major ad-blockers, some of which are pretty dodgy indeed.

    Adblock Plus comes off the worst of the lot. The company charges publishers fees to allow their ads through its filters, based on criteria about size and placement. Ghostery blocks trackers, but by default gathers but allows you to opt into the collection of "anonymized" data about your browsing habits (it's very hard to conclusively describe any deep data set as anonymized).

    Both tools allow you to customize them to change these behaviors, but most people never change their defaults, and in the case of Adblock Plus, the user interface is extremely difficult to navigate.

    The nonprofit world does a lot better: EFF's Privacy Badger doesn't track you and doesn't take money to make exceptions. It also has a much narrower purpose: blocking ads that use "non-consensual tracking" that allow for "retargeted" ads that follow you from one site to another. It has a lot fewer options than, say, Adblock Plus -- it's not useful if you want to automatically block scripts that drive those "subscribe to our email list" popups, or opt out of cookies from news sites that try to limit you to 10 articles per month. On the other hand, fewer options mean fewer ways to accidentally turn on something that allows tracking.

    The social media advertising apocalypse has driven publishers to more than obnoxious ads, of course. They're also running obnoxious campaigns to beg, cajole, trick or coerce you into handing over your email address -- not because email newsletters are such a great way to make money, but because they're the last real, federated, open channel through which ads can be sent without permission from a gatekeeper like Facebook. Of course, as so much email concentrates onto platforms like Gmail, the "federated" email system is increasingly federated in name only, as a misstep in Gmail's spam filter could destroy your business without any appeal.

    Wired's final prediction is that all the ads will disappear into sponsored content within a decade. That may be OK when you're talking about car and booze campaigns, but what about political coverage, public safety, and wars? Would you want to read "native advertising" about the Flint water crisis, say, sponsored by Nestle's bottled water arm?

    To some in the publishing and ad industries, these business models are nothing less than extortion.

    “The ad-block profiteers are building for-profit companies whose business models are premised on impeding the movement of commercial, political, and public-service communication between and among producers and consumers,” Randall Rothenberg, the president and CEO of advertising trade group Interactive Advertising Bureau, said in a speech earlier this year. “They offer to lift their toll gates for those wealthy enough to pay them off, or who submit to their demands that they constrict their freedom of speech to fit the shackles of their revenue schemes.”

    Adblock Plus in particular has come under fire from some publishers and advertisers. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Taboola, for example, have all reportedly paid hefty fees to Adblock Plus to have their ads whitelisted, according to The Financial Times.

    Ad Blockers Are Making Money Off Ads (And Tracking, Too) [Julia Greenberg/Wired]


    Update: Hugh Cunningham from Affect Public Relations and Social Media writes:

    I am writing on behalf of Ghostery, which was mentioned in today's article entitled "Here's the Thing with Ad Blockers." The following statement on Ghostery is used in the article:

    Ghostery blocks trackers, but by default gathers "anonymized" data about your browsing habits (it's very hard to conclusively describe any deep data set as anonymized).

    This statement is incorrect, as data gathering is off by default when using the Ghostery plug-in. Users have to Opt-in, not Opt-Out, as Ghostery is a privacy tool, and values user privacy above all else.

    I believe that the info for this article was take from Julia Greenberg's Wired piece, which was also incorrect at time of publishing. We worked with her yesterday to correct her article.

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