How we pass the buck

Ads, blocking, and how we make sure it’s never actually our fault.

It’s not my fault.

“I’m a journalist, a writer. I let the folks on the publishing side handle the business end of things. Hell, I’d be compromised if I didn’t.”

“I’m a publisher. I let the ad networks handle the inventory. I have to worry about the bottom line, and our brand. I can’t get in the weeds with all this stuff.”

“We’re just an ad serving platform. We deliver the ads, and make sure they’re tracked. It’s not up to us what ads come through. Who are we to say?”

“We’re an optimization platform. Sure, we make the algorithm that decides which ads are displayed. But the software is neutral, it just uses math to decide. We’re not responsible for what buyers put in the system. And publishers can say no to anything they want to.”

“We’re buying ads because we’ve got something to sell. We have to use whatever techniques are gonna make us the most money. Don’t like it? Don’t take our money.”


It’s not our fault.

“We make an operating system. We’ve got to put a web browser in because people need it. And we’ve got to make it work with ad blockers because people want to use them. But we don’t install blockers ourselves; it’s not our fault.”

“We make an ad blocker, but people have to choose to install it. Sure, we make the algorithm that decides which ads are blocked. But the software is neutral, it just uses math to decide. We’re not responsible for what sites are affected. Or we use a third-party list to block stuff.”

“Yeah, we make a list of ad networks. But the list has lots of uses. It’s not our fault if some people want to use it to block ads.”

“I’m just a person who wants a good experience while browsing the web. Sure, there might be some collateral damage to some sites if I use an ad blocker, but it’s not my fault the industry doesn’t care about readers.”


Architectures of Abdicating Advertising Accountability

The interesting thing about the infrastructure of buck-passing is that any acceptance of responsibility is seen as apostasy. If we try to change our role in making a broken system, the folks next to us will lash out for pointing out the shortcomings.

For example, Marco Arment shipped his ad blocker Peace with a design that abdicated choice over blocked sites to Ghostery, a company that both provides consumers with tools to let them know who’s tracking on the web, and provides tools to the companies that do the tracking. It’s not their fault!

Then, upon reconsideration, Marco undid that choice. It was a best case scenario of what many of us hope to see in today’s tech industry: A young, white cis-male millionaire reflecting on the impacts of his work, not in terms of how it affects the most fortunate, but the most marginal. And upon reflection, deciding to make a change in behavior, despite it having a material monetary impact. This is exactly what we need more of!

A lot of Peace’s users got really angry to see the blocker app go away.


Ultimately, many of us like to be able to blame the software when wrangling with complicated situations. I think I hate being tracked by ads, and I know that it’s probably pretty complex to figure out exactly how changing that relationship would affect all the sites I like to read. So ideally I’d just delegate this to someone who makes an app. Right?

The thing is, technology is not neutral, algorithms are built with values, and the default choices in our software determine huge swaths of our culture. We delegate ethical decisions as consumers and citizens to people make software, but almost no computer science program teaches ethics, and almost no major technology company has a chief ethicist.

Ads are just one of the first, most visible areas where we’re starting to see the limits of our habit of designing technology. We build systems that let us pass the buck to someone else, in exchange for passing them a few bucks. We could respond by stepping up and saying where we want to take responsibility. Or we could just see these issues as software bugs to be fixed.