Pluralistic: 29 Apr 2022

Today's links

A row of newspaper boxes on a lonely sidewalk; their windows are filled with the 'falling binary' Matrix waterfall effect.

Killing online surveillance with contextual ads (permalink)

The internet has ushered in an era of unprecedented invasive surveillance. Commercial operators large and small spy on us in every way and sell and give away and leak our data to criminals, cops, spies, advertisers and stalkers.

This isn't because you're not paying for "the product," which makes you the product. Companies that can abuse you do.

John Deere will sell you a $800,000 tractor and then lock you out of getting it fixed so they can charge you a fortune for repairs. You're paying for the product, but you're still the product.

Apple wants you to think that paying $1,000 for an Iphone means you're not the product, but you are. Apple runs the same repair racket as John Deere, and then they rake 15-30% off of every dime you spend in an app. Apple's selling you to app makers: you're the product.

The biggest predictor of whether a company will treat you as the product is whether anyone will stop them. Sometimes you can stop them – by shopping elsewhere, say (though it's damned hard to shop your way out of monopoly capitalism!). More often, the thing that stops companies from abusing you is laws that ban abuse, and regulators who enforce the laws vigorously.

Back to online surveillance. The ad-tech industry (and, ironically, many of its critics) say that spying on you all the time and in every way makes ads vastly more effective. We shouldn't take their word for it. Ad-tech is a giant scam, a vast accounting fraud of fake ads shown to fake users with fake billings producing trillions in real profits:

Paying for media doesn't mean that companies won't abuse you. Not paying for media doesn't mean they will. The determinant of your abuse is whether companies will suffer consequences for it. While there are some problems with ad-supported media, they're completely separate from the problems of surveillance – and the problems of surveillance are much worse than the problems of ads. That's why we should ban surveillance ads.

Wait, I hear you saying. Doesn't Europe ban surveillance ads already, through the GDPR? Well, yes, technically, they do. The process of getting consent for surveillance ads under the GDPR is deliberately so cumbersome that it is effectively impossible to run a surveillance ad industry.

So how is it that Google and Facebook and other ad-tech companies operate in Europe? Simple: they break the law. They – and many other companies – claim that they don't need your consent to spy on you, because they can use the "legitimate interest" clause of the GDPR that allows them to process your data without asking you. This is a lie, and it's only a lack of enforcement that allows the tech giants to get away with it (it's possible that the new Digital Services Act will finally spur enforcement).

So let's say we ban surveillance advertising. Will that wipe out ad-supported media and produce a world where "the truth is paywalled but the lies are free"?

Not at all. It's possible to advertise to you without spying on you. It's a very old technique, in fact: rather than targeting ads to you, the reader, the advertiser targets the article you're reading. If you're reading about winter sports, then you get ads for skis and winter package holidays and hockey leagues.

These are called contextual ads, and there's pretty good evidence that it works about as well as surveillance ads. But I have to admit that for some advertisers, contextual ads won't work as well as surveillance ads, which means that some publishers' content will generate fewer ad dollars overall.

But that doesn't mean publishers will earn less by switching to contextual ads. For one thing, the surveillance ad market is rigged, with about half of ad spending disappearing into the offshore, tax-free bank accounts of big tech companies (which is why I say "Big Tech isn't stealing newspapers' content, it's stealing their money"):

One of the ways that Big Tech maintains its death-grip on advertising spending is through its "data-advantage": Google and Facebook are a lot better at spying on you than any potential rivals, which means that so long as surveillance-based targeting dominates, then Googbook will also dominate. The corollary: ban surveillance advertising and you annihilate that data-advantage at the stroke of a pen. That means that publishers can negotiate more reasonable splits with ad platforms and take a bigger piece of the (possibly) smaller context ad pie.

We don't even need to ban surveillance advertising to force the switch to contextual advertising. Just forcing companies to obtain meaningful consent before spying on users would effectively eliminate surveillance ads.

As Rande Price writes for Digital Content Next, people hate surveillance ads. It creeps them out. 79% of internet users prefer context ads to surveillance ads.

That number comes from a Harris Poll:

It's part of an unbroken string of surveys that find that large majorities of internet users do not consent to surveillance ads. Indeed, a Yougov poll found that 38% of users say surveillance ads make them feel "creeped out" (31% feel "violated").

No wonder so many people are ad-blocking ("the biggest consumer boycott in history" -Doc Searls). If publishers want users to look at ads, they have to stop making them feel "violated" and "creeped out."

Fewer people will block contextual ads – publishers only get paid for ads that actually show up on the user's screen. What's more, it's harder to corner the market for serving contextual ads, meaning that publishers will be able to shop for a bigger share of the ads they do serve.

We should get rid of surveillance ads because they expose us to all kinds of risks – leaks, police fishing expeditions, digital discrimination and more. But publishers should support getting rid of surveillance ads because a switch to contextual ads will make them (lots) more money.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Reading from Little Brother, forthcoming young adult novel

#10yrsago Brazil’s copyright societies indicted for fraud, new law demands efficient, transparent collecting societies

#10yrsago Stephen King interviewed by Neil Gaiman

#10yrsago East London residents warned of surface-to-air missiles sited on their roofs for the Olympics

#5yrsago The CIA created a “Snowden Stopper” to catch future whistleblowers

#5yrsago US government tells Supremes it could strip citizenship from virtually all naturalized Americans if it wanted to

#1yrago Disney's writer wage-theft is far worse than reported

#1yrago Korea set to break the Samsung dynasty

#1yrago What the hell is "carried interest"

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Kurt Opsahl (

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