The Cat and Mouse Game of Online Ads

Ad blocking is a hot issue now that a growing number of websites are blocking ad blocker users from reading their articles. A significant step, since this is a highly controversial move.

Even though advertisement on the internet has a bad name, we should not forget that many online publications would have never existed without the money they earn with displaying ads. Advertisement basically paid for the last decade of innovation on the web. Enabling a lot of people to produce high quality work, and offer it too their audience free of charge. All for the simple trade off that we tolerate advertisements on the pages we visit, before the videos we watch and in the games we play.

It is a delicate balance that content creators have to figure out. Too much advertisements, and your viewers will walk.

But at the moment, that balance is disturbed. Many websites serve their users infuriating bad experiences due to (too many) slow loading ads, full screen and (delayed) popover ads, junk advertisements and many other annoying ad practices.

Add some very real privacy issues, top it off with growing security issues, and we reached the point that users are taking action. They are installing ad blockers and block those ads.

Besides the fact that ads are enormously annoying, they have other problems that are less obvious, but also contribute too the growing crowd of ad blocker users.

Let’s begin with the performance issue. All that extra code and content that has to be downloaded and executed has a serious impact on the perceived speed of a website. And especially on mobile, blocking ads is more a performance issue rather then safety or privacy.

Last fall, with the introduction of iOS 9, mobile ad blocking took the spotlight when Apple opened up the App Store for content blockers that work in mobile Safari. Many articles showed the significant performance boost of blocking ads on mobile. Resulting in faster page rendering times, reduced data usage, a better overal user experience and even enhanced battery life. Blocking ads seems an easy fix for these issues.

Besides performance improvements blocking ads benefits users in other ways as wel. As the web evolved, advertisement grew with it. Simple text based advertisements are not good enough anymore, and ads nowadays are rich on imagery, video and filled with tracking mechanisms.

A popular site now a day’s easily has a few dozen of 3rd party elements on their pages. Advertisement networks, analytics, social media stuff, etc., and all of these are collection data of some kind.

Sure, they will help the site in question with a given element on their site, but the nasty side effect is that now dozen of companies are watching and recording your every move. Companies that in turn are sharing accumulated records of all this surfing behavior to yet other companies, who do who knows what with that data.

Let’s have a look at what cloud be the most used 3rd party tracking tool: Google Analytics.

Ghostery reports this data being collected:

Anonymous:

  • Ad Views
  • Analytics
  • Browser Information
  • Cookie Data
  • Date/Time
  • Demographic Data
  • Hardware/Software Type
  • Interaction Data
  • Page Views
  • Serving Domains

Pseudonymous:

  • IP Address (EU PII)
  • Search History
  • Location Based Data
  • Device ID (EU PII)
  • Phone Number

This data might very well be anonymized but, with a bit extra information(like your browser fingerprint) and some effort you can de-anonymize this kind of data fairly easily.

Of course, not all trackers will collect the same amount of information, but having dozens of companies collecting some of this data every time you visit a webpage, it quickly adds up to a sizable amount of information that is collected and stored.

Yet all of this happens without the average users knowledge. It is not as if the website you are visiting actively tells you that your browsing data is send to many other companies. Send to companies that then basically can do whatever they like with your data.

So when these sites are asking you to disable your ad blocker, but does not tell you that dozen of other companies collect your data, it disturbs that balance of the users tolerating ads in exchange for content.

Then there is the very real issue of security. Online ads are a frequent source of malware distribution and even the big advertisement networks have been reported on many occasions to be serving malware through their ads.

You do not have to visit shady sites at the fringes of the world wide web to attract malware. These threats now come from established brands, websites you have come to trust. So simply visiting your favorite website can suddenly expose you to malware.

We know that websites are not going to audit every single line of 3rd party code or ad on possible security risks, or can we expect any compensation when you do get hit by malware served on their site. Meanwhile they keep asking us to disable our ad blockers or whitelist their site in order to perserve their revenues. How is this a fair trade when the sites are not explicit about the many 3rd party’s involved?

Installing an ad blocker is one of the simplest measures we can take to minimize these online risks. And so, from a personal point of view, why would you not block ads? It seems like the sensible thing to do, it get’s rid of those annoying ads on a page. It helps limiting the amount of data about you that is being collected. And helps to minimize the risk of getting malware on your computer. With modern computers bursting with precious personal information, it takes only 1 crypto locker to get yourself into some serious trouble.

Coming back to this delicate balance between free content and advertisements, we now are in a difficult situation. There are solid reasons users to block ads to protect themselves, yet we can surely sympathize with content creators that struggle to keep their publications afloat.

The industry has to figure out how we can keep content freely accessible online, and at the same time keeping users secure. It is clear that the ad supported model has reached it peak as privacy and security issues are becoming bigger issues. But until then, Ad blockers are very tempting to use and will continue to be used by more and more people.

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