Publishers’ and advertisers’ rights end at a browser’s front door.
You don’t “visit” Web pages. You request them through a protocol: specifically, the hypertext protocol better known as http.
Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. So, when you “visit” a site (such as a seller) with a service on the Web, you are not requesting anything other than what you expect to see in text and graphics.
For example, when you “visit” a publisher’s website, you expect the browser to display that site’s home page and its links, and deliver nothing more. And when you visit a retailer’s website, you expect the browser to display the index page of that site. And, if you have some kind of relationship with that site, you expect it to recognize that you are a returning visitor or customer.
In neither of those cases do you expect to also get tracking files, other than those that help the site remember you were there before. That was the original purpose of Lou Montouli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. In Lou’s detailed history of the cookie, he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.”
Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world, because it is a useful model. I’ll use my sister as an example of a typical reader. She’s a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy, and organized in the way she interacts with what we generally call “content.”
When a newspaper arrives at her doorstep, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons or promotions that might interest her. Then she strips out sections that don’t interest her. The Travel section might go on one Sunday, the Sports section on another.
Then, when she reads the paper in her house or on her porch—both private spaces—she ignores most of the ads. One exception might be the magazine section, which tends to contain full-page brand ads by companies like Apple and Toyota. Those she might notice and like at some level. It all depends.
The main thing is that she consciously blocks some ads and allows some others, some of which she pays attention to, but most of which she does not.
This kind of interaction is what a person expects the hypertext protocol and good manners by websites and services will provide. Website owners that spy on people when they leave those sites (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple.
Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But those should be opt-in, not opt-out.
How did we get from the online world Lou Montouli sought to improve in ’94 and the one we have today? Check the metaphors for what we had and what we lost.
Back in the mid-’90s we called the browser our car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, are privacy technologies. They give us ways of operating in the world that conceal our most private spaces — ones where others are not welcome, except by invititation.
But, thanks to Zuboff’s Laws, our browsers became infected with spyware. Here is what those laws say:
- Everything that can be automated will be automated.
- Everything that can be informated will be informated.
- Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.
Sure, some of adtech’s surveillance is meant to give us a “better advertising experience” or whatever. But that’s beside the main point: it breaks both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. It gives us what none of us asked for and what most of us don’t want. And it does so simply because it can.
Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we installed our own ad and tracking blockers. In doing so we acted as free and independent beings, just as we do in the everyday world with our clothing, our shelter and our cars.
What we need next are ways for us to engage constructively with publishers, in alignment with well-understood social contracts long established in the everyday world, and embodied in the hypertext protocol.
Engagement will also give us scale. As I explain in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War,
Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.
But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.
The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.
If we leave fixing things up to publishers and the adtech industry, all of us will be given different prosthetic hands, each of which will interact in different ways that are not of our choosing and give us no scale. In fact that is what we already get with the DAA’s Ad Choices and Ghostery’s massive opt-out list. We see how well that worked.
The road to personal scale is a long one.
In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,
Except in 1999, when we wrote that, human beings didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew that reach was our native entitlement on the Net.
In The Data Bubble, I said,
The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.
That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.
In fact it the tide didn’t turn, because we didn’t yet have the tools to turn it. The Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at http://wsj.com/wtk. The last entry was in 2013. They should fire it up again.
Because now we have the first of those tools.
But we have to do more than automatically feild-strip web pages. And by “we” I mean us human beings — and the developers working on our side for the good of everybody.