A while back (seems like it was 3 months ago – time flies!) in my usual desire to express myself online, I tweeted:
“Disable your adblocker to view this article” is the new “disable your antivirus or this program will not work”
I got called out by @StarLightPL for being a bit extreme with my judgements, and asked for what I'd rather pick to allow people to make money on the web. So here's what I think, in more than 140 characters :)
TL;DR: trackers bad, ads mostly good, coin miners probably better still. Read on.
First, why my hate for ads, and why compare them to malware without a second thought. The low-hanging fruit argument would be to point out that Malvertising is a thing that has its own wikipedia page with some examples of it listed, but I don't feel like it's a very good argument by itself: after all, we've always had malware, we'll probably always have it, and it's only natural that ads were one of the things used as their carrier. Still, one may be right to consider them as an attack vector worth cutting out – which is probably why MyEtherWallet suggests installing an adblocker to protect your crypto-money from phishers and whatnot. Sound sensible enough to me, but there's more to my dislike for ads than potential security threats. To explain that, I'll use an example of my own dad.
My dad is not exactly a very technical person. „Technically illiterate” would maybe be a bit of a stretch, but he's the kind of person who, upon inserting a dvd into a dvd drive and seeing nothing happening, considered pressing “Start” (which is not even called that in Windows anymore it seems: time flies again!) to, well, make it Start working.
Showing my dad around the internet and teaching him how to navigate websites is a challenge in itself, but I noticed how often I find myself telling him “no, don't click that, that's an ad”, or “scroll down, the topmost things are never what you're actually looking for”. In the most peculiar cases, he'd want to watch a video or a stream somewhere, and try explaining to him why he's not supposed to click the big, shiny “watch now in HD!” button. Isn't that exactly what he wants? No, but he doesn't know that. And I thought the days of software sites with 5 different “Download now!” buttons were gone.
For him, with navigating around the internet being hard enough by itself, ads just become an additional obstacle (if not a threat), and it's just simplier to slap an adblocker on and save him some work and confusion.
You could argue that it is only the case for shitty (or shady) websites and their crappy ads – perhaps advise that he shouldn't walk too far into the great internet unknown by himself in the first place, and on regular, decent websites this would've never happened. Perhaps, yeah. But then there's another thing, for the demonstration of which I'd use another of my family members – this time my sister.
Being 18 years older than me, as a child, my sister was a technical godess to me, teaching me everything about using the computers, drawing stuff in Paintbrush (yep) and whatnot. As time went by, I'm now more likely to be the one teaching her stuff, but she remains to have probably the second best technical knowledge in the family – along with some unique approach and expectations about things.
At some point she got a free laptop from her ISP for renewing her agreement, a laptop that had Windows (I think 10) preinstalled. She called dibs on it and claimed it as her own in her household, but, being my sister, she actually read the license agreement for Windows before accepting it. Uh-oh. That's when she calls me and asks what do they mean by recording and archiving and analyzing everything she types into the menus on that thing, and also potentially using her data for their marketing or other purposes. After hearing that it's no joke and that's exactly what they do, she asked for alternatives. She's now running Ubuntu on that laptop. It's been a few years I think, not anything always works as she'd expect it to, but she preferred to invest a bit of money into making that laptop capable of running Windows in a VM and put some work-related stuff onto that, instead of actually giving up and accepting that dreaded license system-wide.
As you might expect, blocking ads (or, more precisely, trackers – more on that in a moment) was a natural next step for her. She was cautious enough to read the contract before signing it, only to realize that she doesn't agree with it and doesn't want to sign it. We sometimes unwillingly, and often unknowingly “sign” that contract when browsing the web with targeted ads. Not everyone who uses the web is even aware that their online activity is being tracked – if they were, they may have preferred to opt out of it, even for the price of missing out on some functionality.
This “selling your data for a service” contract is something opt-out, not opt-in on our modern web, exploiting the fact that most users don't even know that such a thing exists. Sure, some will be comfortable and happy about their websites or apps on the phone being “smart” and surprisingly helpful at times, but for some it's shocking and undesirable enough that making it opt-in (by giving them tracking blockers enabled by default) seems like a more sound ethical choice to me.
But of course, it was never about the ethics of it – it's about making money. The fact that ads are getting more intrusive is just an effect of advertisers trying to maximize their profit – and their profit is what ultimately pays the bills who actually produce content on the web and make this whole place worth browsing through. This is the time to answer the question I was asked in the first place: “if not with ads, how would you fund websites?”
Personally, to be fair, I don't really care about ads themselves. As long as they're not this in-your-face popups that cover the entirety of the content and make it easier to close the whole tab than the ad itself (which I usually do in that situation), I don't even notice their existence. I don't use an adblocker myself, mostly because I feel like it's unfair to feel entitled to other people's hard work for free. At the same time, I also feel uncomfortable agreeing to this unwritten contract of selling my browsing habits to the highest bidder, so I have Privacy Badger installed in my browsers.
Of course, given that the vast majority of ads are actually trackers at the same time, it has a side effects of being a de facto adblocker, and many sites see it that way, showing me their “please disable your adblock, you're robbing us of our income”. Sometimes I'm acting cynical about it, smirking and saying “oh, don't worry, I'm not using any”, but if they're convincing enough, for example by actually making it impossible for me to read the content, I take the hint. And leave. Or sometimes disable privacybadger and stay: if I feel like the content being served is worth me selling a bit of myself for it.
That's how I think it should be: opt-in, not opt-out. Make it clear that you're selling me to finance your work, giving me an option to disagree and leave. As long as your ads are not making my experience worse or actively try to trick me into something, I don't really care that they're there. But being secretive about your actual actions, and acting like “oh, you never said you disagree, also everyone does it so it's fine” is something I don't tolerate, and I have full understanding for others who don't.
I could finish my ramblings here, having explained in detail what I meant in my tweet, but thinking about this topic actually made me think of something different entirely. By visiting websites with ads, tracking or not, we're pretty much becoming the product being sold: our attention is valuable to someone. What else could we sell as an alternative to it to make the websites profitable still?
Piratebay recently had an episode (which, ironically enough, brought criticism upon it) where they used cryptocurrency miners on their websites as a way to make money on their visitors. People were infuriated by the idea of having someone use their computers' power without them knowing, which I can totally relate to: it's the same kind of opt-out scummy tactic that I consider tracking ads to be. But, implemented properly, openly and honestly, isn't it only fitting that if you watch content that I spent money (and effort) to publish on the internet for everyone, you should consider donating some of your computer's time in exchange for mine's? Apart from content creation itself, running servers costs money, and crowdfunding some of that money to clients by having them spend some of their resources in exchange for mine sounds only fitting to me!
Of course, in line with all I wrote above, I think it's only appropriate when implemented openly and honestly: either as a barrier of entry (“calculate some hashes for us to earn a right to read our content”), or as an optional donation to recognize somebody's efforts (“if you liked my stuff, feel free to donate some of your computer's time by clicking this button and letting it run for as long as you see fit”). What do you think about that, dear reader? Would you be comfortable knowing, that while you were reading my ramblings here, your browser and your CPU were actually working for me all along? Worry not, they haven't :) I wouldn't do something like this without anyone's consent, but as a user of the web, would you be comfortable with paying that kind of a price for the otherwise seemingly free web? Were I to put a button on this very blog that'll mine me some cash as you are reading, would you press it?