The Real Price of Internet Advertising?

October 2, 2015 at 9:19 am (internet) (, , , , )

I’ve been following some of the discussions about ad-blocking with interest.  I’ve now seen a number of comments from a range of sides on this one and am continually being surprised by some of the attitudes and opinions starting to appear in this arms race between blockers and advertisers.

Some of the facts and opinions that have surfaced that surprised me are:

  • Advertisers can buy their way out of ad-blocking.  So are advertisers now having to pay twice to advertise?  Kind of.  Or are ad-blockers positioning themselves as ‘guardians of the web’.  Kind of that too.
  • Blocking ads hurts the small people more than the big people.  Small businesses or creators or hobbyist event organisers and so on are the people losing out with ad-blockers.  The large providers will probably ride over much of this (or pay their way out) but these are the people whose enterprises (commercial or personal) are being enabled by the global reach and scale of the Internet, but it may all become fully cost ineffective if cheap, simple, high-reach advertising channels disappear.
  • Some websites are actively degrading their user experience for visitors using ad blockers.  The Washington Post apparently has experimented with not allowing articles to be viewed if you turn off ads.  And Google was removing ‘skip ad’ options for viewers of YouTube videos running Adblock Plus.

Why do people use ad blockers?  Well I suspect that many don’t mind adverts in the more general sense.  I’d say Ad blockers are arguably a blunt instrument deployed against anti-social, exploitative and intrusive adverts.

I regular get annoyed with in-your-face popups in front of an article I’m trying to read.  Is this a design failure on the part of the site to catch my attention by more subtle means?  Is it taking advantage of a captive audience?  Not sure., but that is a good reason for ad-blocking if the industry can’t regulate itself better.  And the drive for more intrusive ads is increasing – especially with more automatically playing video ads and the like on mobiles.  It is not want you want or when you want it.  End of.  That does not win friends or makes people warm to your products.  Maybe it is time for more obvious ‘commercial breaks’ in Internet use rather than a constant drip-feed of annoyance.

I also find it insulting when ads are designed to trick and fool you into clicking.  Whether that is placing link buttons right next to close X icons, especially successful on small screens I assume.  Or the plethora of ads that include the words ‘download’ as very visible buttons when you are attempting to download a document or software from sites such as sourceforge. Or maybe it is just in the general placing of ads so as to maximise accidental clicking. If the revenue is based on trickery, subversion and relies on accidental clicking/swiping/selecting to survive … then that is an industry in trouble indeed.

But the major reason right now for utilising ad blocking for me is as a defence against malware.  I regular read the detailed analysis published by a range of security vendors on how they’ve uncovered a complex malware serving system taking advantage of some of the large-scale advertising networks.  The bidding and auctioning processes for serving ads, coupled with many levels of redirection and URL shortening, and linked with content-delivery networks, not to mention links off to marketing and tracking databases, has created such a complex set of third party dependences for even the most trustworthy of websites that no place seems safe anymore.  Yes, you patch, keep plug-ins up to date, run AV checks, but it must surely be impossible to keep a PC clean of unwanted software these days and a major vulnerability is exposure to ads on sites you use and trust everyday.

Do I mind about the tracking?  Well again it depends. If done sensitively, then why not – there are benefits to seeing things of interest.  But I have no faith in such a lucrative business acting in the interests of us, their users – their ‘product’.  We have not opted-in to the use of free services in exchange for privacy – at best it is a false-choice due to the overwhelming network effects and dominant positioning of the large Internet companies.  We all know they are very good at staying below the ‘creepy line’ in knowing about you and providing just enough usefulness to keep us hooked to their services.  But with more hooking up between online services and offline data brokers, and not even thinking about any kind of future Internet of connected sensing and data gathering devices, things only look like getting worse before they get better.

So whilst the ad blocking war continues, being played out as a warning of the end of free services for consumers if they all block ads – I think the real win situation can only be when some of the above are fixed – lose intrusive ads, keep consumers in control of when they click or not and not trick them, ensure ad networks can not compromise trusted websites, and support responsible tracking of consumers with real opt-in.

I think only then will the need for ad-blockers go away.  I don’t think ad blockers have ever really been about blocking advertising – they have always been about maintaining control over the exploitation of a consumer’s Internet experience.  And for that, they serve more the purpose of an anti-virus, pop-up blocking, privacy supporting, malware-prevention, PC cleaning tool to me.

And in a world where people still fall for telephone ‘Microsoft support scams’, still install rogue Facebook applications in the hope of gaining a Dislike button, and still believe they can change the world via a status update (or at least think it will keep their Facebook data being sold off or made public), the need for protection like this shows no sign of going away just yet.


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Can I have some friction in my sharing?

November 6, 2012 at 8:07 pm (internet) (, , , , )

I’ve hated the idea of “frictionless sharing” ever since I first saw the Facebook Yahoo! app post to my Facebook wall that I’d read one of their articles (I instantly removed the post, remove the app, and haven’t clicked on a Yahoo! link since).

I share the view that I’ve now seen in a number of places – this might be frictionless but it isn’t sharing.  At best is automatic visibility.  Sharing is something you do when you make a conscious decision that someone else might be interested in something you have to say.  It is curation or cultivation of some context that you have filtered out from everything else and decided is worthy of a wider audience.  It is making time to make a point (like this blog post perhaps) and making a, hopefully small amount of effort, but still a conscious effort, to pass it on.

The use of social media is a performance – it is constructing a view of ourselves that we would like others to see.  Most hope that their status will be construed as witty, intelligent, cool or be looking for some reaffirmation from friends or some token of support or validation of their actions … whatever, but the point is that this is all part of someone saying “this is me”.

So when I see apps that automatically post that so-and-so has read such-and-such an article, and is listening to this or that, I often wonder if that is part of the image that the person is happy to be presenting.  Often it is – but sometimes you wonder why someone is reading a specific article.  Of course what is missing is the reaction to the article.  Yes I might read an article about something, but did I like it?  Did I agree with it?  Did it disgust me?  When I had to click “Like” to get it listed on Facebook, that would give a clue.  When I have to click “share” to post it, I get the option of some context as to why I’m posting it.  When the app posts on my behalf, noone has any idea about the context of my reading it and may attempt to draw their own conclusions (most of which will almost certainly be incorrect).

I fully subscribe to the idea of people have private thoughts to experiment with ideas and consider a range of options before making up their minds about something.  They should be free to follow a range of links about a topic, many they won’t agree with – only then can they get a well-rounded view of it all.  But in an age of “frictionless sharing” will people start to think twice before they click on a link or see a film or watch something on TV or listen to that track?  Will we slowly breed a society of banal conformity?

Well maybe there is hope – it would appear that the idea of automatic posting may be starting to take its course.  Yes it might be good for Facebook to decide that telling your friends that you’ve clicked on something will increase their internal hit counts and encourage your friends to click too, which helps their ad business … but it would appear that some are starting to question it too.  At last.

You used to be able to pick up a book or read an article and keep the knowledge of the activity firmly in your own head.  This is a good thing.  Lets hope it’s not too late to turn that around.

Further reading on this topic:


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Crowdsourced personal data coming to a profile near you

May 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm (computers, internet, security) (, , , , , , )

I’ve slowly been (finally) getting to grips with the Facebook friends lists feature and have been noticing some interesting side effects of using it.

First of all, I finally know how to get Facebook to stop censoring my newsfeed.  You add people to your “close friends” list, then you get every gory detail.

So next – do I want my lists to be cumulative or exclusive?  Do I want close friends to appear in acquaintances as well?  I opted for exclusive – if they are on one, then I won’t put them on the other.

Restricted friends – i.e. those friends you want to list (for whatever reason, friends hardly ever means “friends” on Facebook) that by default, you are happy to not see what you get up to.  A smart move by Facebook as by giving this built-in censoring people will be happy to divulge more to the social network “safe” in the knowledge that their boss, parent or otherwise “don’t want to unfriend but don’t want to broadcast to” contact won’t see it.

The “smart lists” are interesting too – grouping those to have openly admitted to going to the same school, working at the same company or otherwise are members of something that is shared with you.  But I notice that Facebook still offers up the rest of your friends as suggestions for adding to these lists too.

So, if I haven’t volunteered a piece of information – say which school I went to – but a number of my friends have, then it would be natural for them, if using the school smart list, to “add” me to their list for their school.  The upshot is that even if I didn’t want to tell Facebook what school I went to, they don’t need me to anymore.  The chances are that at least one of my friends will have put me in their “school” smart list.

This is like other people tagging me in photos but without me being able to opt out.

Crowdsourced personal tagging.  Nice one Facebook – you seemed to have snuck that one in on us all and managed to align the incentives so that people will do it because its useful to them.  Clever.

What’s next I wonder – smart lists for interests, sexual orientation, age, location?  Oh yes, they already do that one – anyone I’m friends with can now tag me as a “local” friend and tell Facebook where I am whether I wanted to tell them or not.

Ok, so how about a generic framework for me to create my own list, add a set of people and then use the Facebook “like” system to categorise it in a way that is meaningful to me – with the side effect of telling Facebook everyone who (in my opinion) likes banana ice-cream, whilst building lego models at Justin Bieber gigs  (or whatever criteria I’ve chosen to use).

And of course you’ll have no idea of how others have classified you.  And you’ll have no option to refute it.  I wonder how long it will be before there is a healthy third-party marketing business to work the system.  How about a company paying people a penny to classify their friends with an interest in their product, so that ads for it float to the top of their Facebook page?  You can already run “campaigns” to get more likes, visits, page views and so on (the scary one is paying $0.13 to “create a gmail account for me” … no prizes for guessing what that might be trying to circumvent …).

Getting your friends to “out you” on Facebook.  Creepy yet?  Oh yes.  Good job that is a long way into the future … ahem, well actually, maybe it isn’t.

And of course, just deciding not to be part of this is probably non longer an option.  Even if you’re not on Facebook, it probably doesn’t need you to be anymore – your friends can tell it all it needs to know.  Just imagine the advertising opportunities for Facebook that already exist from sending emails to those not yet on Facebook based on what their friends have already volunteered about them.



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CCTV in the UK

May 16, 2007 at 6:47 pm (security) (, , )

There was an interesting programme on telly last night (Tues) about CCTV in the UK (the first in a two-part series).  It showed lots of examples of when CCTV helped solved crimes over the years, presenting significant ‘mile-stones’ in the development of the technology.

What it didn’t really do however, was address the other side of the argument, and talk about what has been lost in the process.  Everyone remembers a few very high-profile cases where they were a real asset.  No one knows if there are any privacy violations that are caused by having cameras.  I’m certainly not aware of any analysis of whether the cost (in terms of what we lose in privacy) is outweighed by the gains.

They also talked about how cameras act as a deterrent – again this is true from the point of view of the community that now has the cameras, but it hasn’t solve the crime problem, just moved it to another area that doesn’t have cameras.  The problem is solved from the point of view of the community, but not from the point of view of society.

All very interesting though, but I would like to see the other side of the story – especially as cameras are (apparently) getting more intelligent in spotting problems.


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