How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract

In the physical world it is well understood that we wont track our fellow human beings as if they were animals tagged for study. But adtech does exactly that, and it’s wrong.

Let’s get straight what’s going on when you “visit” a Web site or page. Literally, you request it. You don’t go anywhere at all. That request is what the hypertext protocol (http or https) facilitates.

(Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. They also scaffold the social contract.)

So, for example, when I go to some-publisher.com, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. Or, when I go to seller.com, I expect the browser to display the index page of the site. And, if I have some kind of relationship with that site, I expect it to recognize that I am a returning visitor or customer.

In neither of those cases do I expect tracking files, other than those required to remember state, which was the original purpose of Lou Montuli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. Now known as just “the cookie,” it is in ubiquitous use today. In Lou’s detailed history of that creation he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.” So there’s another broken social contract of sorts.

Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world. This time 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, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out all the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons 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, 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.

My point 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. (I visit this example at greater length in The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It in MIT Technology Review.)

This kind of interaction is what the individual expects the hypertext protocol and good manners on the part of websites and services will provide. Websites that spy on users outside the site’s own domains (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple. They are doing more, and other, than what we request and would like to expect.

Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But they should be opt-in for each of us, not opt-out. Alas, that kind of innocent tracking is a baby in the ad blocking bathwater. (The EFF’s Privacy Badger blocks many of these by default, and provides sliders for degrees of opting in or out of them. In spite of welcoming non-tracking-based advertising, Wired and other publishers see tracking protection as the same as blocking.)

How did we get from the online world Lou Montuli 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 our browser was a car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, provide a way to be private in public, concealing 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:

  1. Everything that can be automated will be automated.
  2. Everything that can be informated will be informated.
  3. 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 the social contract in both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. By infecting our browsers with rude spyware, it takes liberties none of us asked for and most of us don’t want.

And no, the “advertising in exchange for free content” argument won’t wash here, because advertising got along fine for centuries without being aimed by spyware, and did the same in the Internet Age before (as it says here) “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”

A few years ago, tech developers tried to send a message about manners to publishers and advertisers with Do Not Track — which was nothing more than a polite request not to be spied on. But it was fought, mocked and ignored by those to whom it spoke.

Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we took matters into our own hands, by installing ad and tracking blockers. Soon ad blocking became the biggest boycott in human history.

In boycotting ads and tracking we act as free and independent agents, 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.

Here’s one, for example.

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 those work.

The road to personal independence and engagement scale is a long one.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Except in 1999, when we wrote that, we didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew we would, sooner or later, as a native entitlement of 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 Wall Street Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at http://wsj.com/wtk. The last entry is in 2013. They should fire it up again.

Because now, as 2017 dawns, we have the first of those tools, with ad and tracking blockers.

But those are first steps, and stop at prophylaxis. We need next steps. Lots of them, and big ones.

By “we” I mean developers working on our side for the good of everybody.

Lots of good stuff happening there. Watch closely, because when the tide turns, the ad bubble, first spotted here in 2008, will finally burst.

Bonus link.

The original version of this post appeared at Doc Searls Weblog on 23 September 2015.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.