How to plug the publishing revenue drain

Doc Searls
The Graph
Published in
9 min readJun 9, 2017


We’ll start with this graph:

Here’s a link to the Google Trends search.

It shows two things hardly noticed in coverage of either Do Not Track or ad blocking:

  1. Ad blocking has been around a long time
  2. Interest in ad blocking didn’t take off until interest in Do Not Track rose and fell in the 2012–13 time frame, suggesting a correlation of some kind.

What happened in that time frame?

  1. Big media got hip to how much tracking was actually going on. By far the best research and coverage of was by the team of reporters, led by Julia Angwin, who produced the What They Know series at The Wall Street Journal. The series ran from the summer of 2010 to mid-2012. The first piece was titled The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, and 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. I blogged, “The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.” But I was wrong. The tide was a tsunami of biblical dimensions that is only beginning to show signs of receding, seven years later.
  2. Do Not Track got awful help from the browser makers. In December 2010, Microsoft announced support as an opt-in feature, later turned it on by default, and reversed that decision in 2015. Apple followed 2011 offered a Do Not Track option in Safari, but didn’t make a big thing about it. Google dragged its feet until November 2012, when, in the fifth paragraph of a Chrome blog, it mumbled about an opt-in setting. Mozilla gave mixed signals about supporting Do Not Track, but finally decided to attack surveillance by third party trackers directly in its Firefox browser, with plans they outlined here in 2013. Meanwhile…
  3. Google and Facebook both said in early 2013 that they would simply ignore Do Not Track requests, which killed it right there. But death for Do Not Track was not severe enough for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which waged asymmetric PR warfare on Mozilla (the only browser maker not run by an industrial giant with a stake in the advertising business), even running red-herring shit like this on its client publishers websites:
As if Mozilla was out to harm “your small business,” or that any small business actually gave a shit.

And it worked.

In early 2013, Mozilla caved to pressure from the IAB. Worse, it started talking about getting into the ad business by doing personalization itself, which suggested support for tracking, even though tracking wasn’t required for that. Users got pissed (see the comments under that last link), me among them. In Earth to Mozilla: Come back home, I summarized the case for doing the right thing and covered as much of the history going down at the time as I could, with lots of links, some now broken. About a year after that piece ran, the Content Services group at Mozilla hired me to help them (and yes, this was the assignment) give users superpowers. (Read that presentation with the speakers’ notes, which you can only see by downloading it.) Alas, Content Services was killed off at the end of 2015 and none of those superpowers were conferred. (Best I could tell, Content Services was created to get Mozilla out of the advertising business, was then assigned an advertising job—to prove online advertising could be done ethically—and was then fired for keeping Mozilla in the advertising business.) Still, hats off to Darren Herman @dherman76, Sean Bohan @SeanBohan and the other good people I worked with in Content Services, all of whom have since moved on to other work, mostly outside of Mozilla.

But killing Do Not Track was a pyrrhic victory for the IAB and adtech, because Do Not Track was the only way users could easily utter privacy requests to websites and their advertisers. With that option blasted off the table, users took matters into their own hands, by installing adblockers, en masse.

Today ad blocking is the biggest boycott in human history. According to PageFair’s 2017 Adblock Report, at least 615 million devices now block ads. That’s larger than the human population of North America. According to GlobalWebIndex, 37% of all mobile users, worldwide, were blocking ads by January of last year, and another 42% would like to. With more than 4.6 billion mobile phone users in the world, that means 1.7 billion people are blocking ads already—a sum exceeding the population of the Western Hemisphere.

Nothing could send a clearer signal of what the market does not want. Yet the IAB continues to blame the messengers rather than hear the message.

But advertisers (starting with the biggest: P&G) have started to wise up. Some publishers have been getting hip as well, led by @Jason_Kint and Digital Content Next (@dcnorg), the online publishers’ trade association.

It also helps that adtech is failing advertisers and publishers together.

For advertisers it has proven to be a terrible way to brand anything. Perhaps a $trillion or more has been spent on adtech and not one familiar worldwide brand (meaning one anybody can name) has been made by it.

Publishing also continues to tank, both online and off. In The (not so great) state of UK print advertising in 4 charts, Lucinda Southern (@Lucy28Southern) of DigiDay) treats us to the grim revenue prospects for newspapers alone:

Source: Enders Analysis AC/WWARC, via BusinessInsider .uk

Of course this has a deep and awful effect on the newspaper journalism funded by that ad revenue. It also doesn’t help that journalism of all kinds is currently drowning in a rising sea of “content,” which includes all the (truly) fake news for which adtech is the business model.

Fortunately, we can stop it. And by “we” I mean readers and publishers, working together, following the lead already established by readers through the boycott itself. We can start with simple tech solutions, some already in the works, that go beyond prophylaxis against ads.

Here’s what publishers can do:

  1. Fire the tracking-based form of advertising called adtech. That’s the kind that carries fraud and malware, clogs data pipes, spies on people (which will soon be illegal in the EU anyway, thanks to the GDPR), and carries enormous operational and cognitive overhead for everybody. This will —
  2. Save journalism from drowning in a sea of content, most of which is just eyeball bait called into the world by adtech, which rewards the boundless creation of it. To do this publishers should —
  3. Agree to readers’ terms and conditions. These first party terms will live at Customer Commons (much as individuals’ copyright licenses live at Creative Commons) and can be expressed in one line of code in the reader’s browser. The first and simplest term is called #NoStalking and says “just give me ads not based on tracking me.” NoStalking ads will be far more valuable, and brand-supporting, than anything adtech has ever done, or ever can do, because their signals are clear and uncompromised. They also sponsor the publisher, which adtech also can’t do, because adtech’s real business is chasing eyeballs: the very incentive that has flooded the world with eyeball bait, and has drawn publishers in to playing that losing game as well. With #NoStalking, publishers will —
  4. Get cleaner, better and more supportive sponsorship from advertisers than they ever got from adtech. Agreeing not to stalk readers will also pave a way off the cattle ranches of Facebook and Google while punching out of adtech’s bubble before it bursts. Making these practical and respectful moves will also return publishers into supporting, by default, The Castle Doctrine, which is the very foundation of privacy both online and off. This will be good for everybody involved, including readers, publishers, advertisers and intermediaries.

I pulled together this case specifically for @StevenLevy and other friends at Backchannel, which revealed today that it is moving to Wired from Medium. I invite Steven and the Backchannel team to follow the outline above, and talk Wired into to doing the same thing.

Believe me, it beats telling readers “Here’s the thing with ad blockers” when the reader actually welcomes ads, but blocks tracking. That’s what Wired has been doing for at least the last year.

Or worse, running this lame new shakedown shit:

That’s what I get when I try to read this piece in Business Insider UK, by Jake Kanter (@JakeKanter).

First, the assumption that I welcome “ads we think you might be interested in,” is wrong, because those ads would surely be based on tracking, and I don’t want that.

Second, I’m not blocking ads. I’m only protecting myself from tracking, in this case using Privacy Badger, which is not an ad blocker, and detects 37 potential trackers on that page.

Third, the “allow ads on Business Insider UK” button takes me to a popover window that begins “1. Click the Adblock Plus icon…” I’m not using Adblock Plus. So they offer these alternatives:

Bzzzzt. The answer is none of the above.

Fourth, the choice to “buy a removal pass” takes me to Google Contributor, which is a brand new thing that is broken from the start.

We can pause here to look at Google Contributor through the customary journalistic prism: sports coverage of conflicts between giant companies. Examples:

Here are four things missed by the sports coverage (factually correct though some or all of it might be):

  1. With Contributor, Google is saying all advertising has negative value. They have also been delivering that message with endless pitches for YouTube Red, the company’s new video subscription service.
  2. This is a move by Google to make the publishing business even more dependent on it.
  3. Plain old brand advertising, which has worked well in the offline world since forever, still provides two forms of value that adtech can’t: a) it sponsors publications, which pubs and readers can both appreciate; and b) it actually packs branding power, though clear economic and creative signaling that adtech can’t do. (For an explanation of the difference between brand advertising and adtech, read Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.)
  4. There are simple approaches that don’t require a giant to come in and squeeze publishers and readers alike. The best I know is the one I outline above, and comes straight from readers.
  5. There’s a bubble here and it’s going to burst, sooner or later. See Peak Advertising by @TimHwang, The Advertising Bubble and What Happens Will Amaze You by Maciej Ceglowski @baconmeteor, After Peak Marketing by yours truly, and the ever growing oeuvres of Bob Hoffman @adcontrarian, Don Marti @dmarti, Augustine Fou, aka Ad Fraud Researcher @acfou, WhiteOps @WhiteOps, Dave Carroll @profcarroll and @MikkoKotila. Too name too few.

Those of us working on the solutions listed above could use a little help. Not much, but some. To get started, talk to me. (Email is my first name at my last name.)

And in case anyone from Mozilla is listening, the opportunity is still there.



Doc Searls
The Graph

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.