One-Click Adblocking Peace Treaty

Let’s stop admiring the problem and fix it.

Photo by William Sauro, 1969, New York Times Archive

On the occasion of Data Privacy Day and because IAB leadership refuses to come clean on data rights for ad targeting, instead further escalating aggression against the market for adblockers, I’m offering a simple solution to the conflict and debate.

Why won’t companies do the right thing and honor your request not to be tracked when you set your browser preference accordingly? Because it’s voluntary and we haven’t demanded it. Yet.

What if there was a blocker that only loaded ads from services that honor the Do Not Track browser setting while agreeing to show a simple visual summary of your data rights? This could create a fair market force to incentivize IAB members to follow the courage of Twitter, Medium, Hulu, and Pinterest (and just few adtech companies) who support the Do Not Track standard.

A simple fix to diffuse the adblock vs. adtech showdown comes down to a simple button that’s missing on the browser toolbar, not hidden in the settings.

We need a Data Sharing button, next to the Back and Reload buttons on the browser toolbar. Ads are blocked unless a site adheres to the Do Not Track standard and also presents a standardized, glanceable visual summary of a provider’s privacy and data rights policy, like a data sharing “nutrition label.”

It is a simple toggle button that taps between: 
🚫Off and 🗣Connected

Your choices are remembered on a per site basis. The Data Sharing default is 🚫Off. Sorry publishers and advertisers, you’re going to have earn back our trust. Here’s how you will:

When your Data Sharing is 🚫Off it means all tracking is blocked. Sites may detect this as a blocker and display a message requesting Data Sharing from you. If the Do Not Track standard isn’t supported and/or a data policy nutrition label isn’t available, the user can’t enable any other mode because a basis of trust cannot be easily established.

When your Data Sharing is 🗣Connected it means anonymized ad tracking and targeting for third-parties is enabled and identified personalization is enabled for first-parties. Sites may load targeted ads, customized content, and unlock premium features for establishing the highest level of trust with consumers.

This is basically the natural evolution of Privacy Badger by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, itself a refinement of the adblocker cudgel, but this proposal takes it much further by solving the crucially missing pro-consumer notice and choice problem, a natural evolution of the Terms of Service, Didn’t Read service and browser extension. It also synthesizes both of these browser extensions into a more user-friendly, far less-nerdy user experience in both instances. Privacy Badger is currently only available for Firefox and Chrome and requires too much user intervention and a technical inclination. Frankly, it’s only for privacy nerds. TOSDR has only rated a few major sites but like the Do Not Track standard, it works elegantly when and if it’s widely adopted.

It’s a peace treaty between users, publishers, adtech, and advertisers through an elegant and integrated UI/UX interaction/graphic design treatment. New academic research presented at the FTC’s #PrivacyCon conference shows us how notice and choice represent the critical missing pieces of the puzzle in striking a fair deal over data between providers and customers.

The keynote speech to the adtech industry by FTC Commissioner Julie Brill highlighted the issues of collapsing trust between consumers and providers and the urgent need to clarify choice and disclosures. Brill acknowledged that consumers do not have an adequate mechanism to opt out of data surveillance on the Web and across their devices. Her speech sharply contrasted the IAB chief Randall Rothenberg’s speech at their annual summit that hurled ad hominem attacks at adblock software makers along with highly politicized language that asserts advertising is the pillar of democracy. However, Rothenberg did not address the increasingly invasive behavioral tracking technologies employed by his members. Instead, he doubled-down on their flawed AdChoices program. He also didn’t acknowledge the harmful effects on democracy of paying for news with our privacy.

🔘 No one reads privacy policies. 🆗

So how will publishers get users to enable Data Sharing? 🚫➡️🗣

Sites should be asking us to toggle our Data Sharing button right there in the toolbar and allow tracking in exchange for a clear benefit such as offers of personalization, premium content, unlocked features, and more. Give us a clear reason to share our data with a fair deal.

Screen design by Leon et al, & Margaret and Kursat

We should be presented with a clear visual summary of how our data will be shared with first and third parties. We ought to be shown what choices we can make and what rights we reserve and forsake. Enough with the funny stuff. The full policy and terms legalese are there for no one to read. The legal fiction that people read them must be addressed through design.

I’m assuming this can be built as a browser extension on desktop. As for mobile, I’ll need to do more research how on iOS Content Blocker could work. Although, Brenden Eich is releasing a whole new browser to “chlorinate” the adtech swamp, getting people to adopt a whole new browser is a steep barrier to entry. But if anyone can make a fast and beautiful browser, he can. However, since IAB has added the Brave browser to its hit list, folks getting into the adblocker business easily make enemies.

Publishers must fix the privacy UX before they can legitimately win the argument against adblockers.

We’d need trade groups like DCN to get all the premium publishers on board to accept this new deal with consumers. They’d support Privacy-by-Design by honoring Do Not Track and glance-ably understandable data trust rules built into the Data Sharing button 🚫🗣 Then they get to brag about how they’ve won back our trust with these visual summary standards that simplify Terms of Service and Privacy Policies into “nutrition labels.” They’d offer us a new deal to tap that “I trust you” button in the browser. Let’s face it. Publishers will have to stop guilting us with blocker-blocking because that doesn’t solve any of our problems or win back our trust.

“It’s hard for me to believe that serving an ad while limiting data retention isn’t better than serving no ad at all.”
— FTC Commissioner Julie Brill

Businesses that advertise must demand a smarter marketing spend to reach customers who are blocking ads.

We’ll need businesses to demand a Privacy-by-Design compliant marketing spend from their advertising agencies. They’ll know their ads won’t be blocked by the most desirable market segment: an educated consumer. If Do Not Track is honored in the ad supply chain, businesses can rethink Wanamaker’s rule.

Ad agencies have little incentive to play along, but if legitimate browser extensions, publishers, and the businesses that advertise make a simple commitment to Privacy-by-Design, it won’t matter. Customers will end their boycott of online advertising when the technology and user experience is finally up to the task. It’s like when people quit stealing music and movies when Apple and Netflix lead the way on user experience.

War is over. If you want it.

For the relevant peer-reviewed, academic papers presented at FTC’s #PrivacyCon (presenters in boldface) see:

Adblocking Articles Library

My series of Medium posts on the subject of adblocking:

👉Adblockers and the fracking of data: An inconvenient truth about digital content might have been my best piece on adblocking because it was my first. Fredéric Filloux and Hunter Walk haven’t recommended anything else I’ve written.

👉Adtech vs. Adblock: Computers ruined advertising. Can they save it? has probably been my most prescient adblock hot-take for the Mike Judge channeling level-up.

👉Adblock as a Tragedy of the Commons: When consumer attention, property rights, privacy rights, media ethics, and market misalignments collide, monopoly wins. This was the article where it all came together. It was the final chapter of the trilogy. Then I started to get in trouble.

👉Can “Acceptable Ads” Solve Adblocking? What I learned by attending the #CampDavid Roundtable Discussion with Adblock Plus on November 3, 2015 After publishing the initial trilogy, and spending a ridiculous amount of time on Twitter ‘engaging’ on #adblock, I wound up with some invitations. Working in public was starting to work out.

👉Big Data Broker ❤️ Adblock: What does the world’s largest consumer data broker think about adblocking? This installment of the serious is perhaps the most irreverent. Reconciling the research coming out of industry against what’s coming out of academia occasionally requires a comic release.