Whittingdale is wrong: it is advertisers who are destroying the digital economy

Adblocking is not the cause of a downward trend in online publishing, it is a justified response to non-consensual tracking and profiling. 

Alexander Hanff
11 March 2016

'Ad block plugins for Chrome', Image: Flickr/Roo Reynolds, some rights reserved

At the beginning of March the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, gave a speech at the Oxford Media Convention after being lobbied by publishers on the issue of “ad blocking". It was clear from Whittingdale’s comments that his opinion was based on just one side of the argument and that he had made no attempt to research the issue beyond meetings with lobbyists. Indeed he even stated as much:

“The newspaper industry brought this to my attention and did not understate the severe consequences if this trend continues.”

Whittingdale compares the ad blocking revolution to the music revolution a decade ago and accuses those of us who use ad blocking technologies of being no better than "pirates". Furthermore he accuses the developers of ad blocking tools of running a “modern day protection racket” whilst completely ignoring the very legitimate concerns of digital consumers. 

Had Whittingdale looked further into the issue before delivering his speech he would no doubt have discovered that not only are digital consumers perfectly entitled to block advertising on the web sites they visit – the use of such tools is actually recommended under European law under 2009/136/EC (the Telecoms Reform Package) where Recital 66 states that where possible digital consumers should use “appropriate settings in a browser or other application” to deny consent for the intrusive practice of tracking their online behavior for the purpose of advertising.

Ad blocking plugins such as the popular AdBlock Plus (Eyeo GmbH) work by preventing the web browser from ever connecting to the adtech servers which place tracking technologies (such as cookies) on consumers’ computers and mobile devices. By blocking the connection from ever happening it prevents many of the techniques used to track and profile our online activities from doing so. This is why, as a long standing advocate of privacy, I have been recommending such tools for close to a decade. 

Unlike Whittingdale I have done my research – I have spoken to the developers of ad blocking technologies, I have spoken to digital consumers. I have spoken to publishersadvertisers, and even regulators and law makers; so I have a strong grasp of the issues and an even stronger understanding of why the use of ad blocking technologies is growing. It probably comes as no surprise that I have yet to see John Whittingdale at any of these events.

In 2008 I led a campaign against a company called Phorm in the UK who were on the verge of tracking the online activities of tens of millions of UK citizens through the installation of surveillance technologies into the UK’s largest Internet Service Providers. It was this campaign which led to changes in European and UK law (including provisions in the previously mentioned Telecoms Reform Package aimed to prevent non-consensual tracking and profiling).

During the campaign it became worryingly apparent that the covert commercial surveillance of digital consumers was not limited to Phorm in the UK but that technologies funded and developed primarily by the adtech industry were rapidly becoming ubiquitous across not just the online web but also mobile apps, the Internet of Things and even increasingly offline thanks to the global emergence of mobile technologies which constantly send out signals via Bluetooth, WiFi and Cellular protocols that can be used to track our physical movements and identify us via unique device tags. In addition to this, we started to see increased development of the use of biometric systems in digital billboards and other technologies. It was rapidly becoming clear that technology was developing at a pace far greater than the ability of lawmakers to keep up.

Advertising on web sites was becoming more intrusive, more annoying and in many cases was destroying the experience of digital media consumption online. It was also beginning to get expensive with rich media advertising such as video and online publishers deploying more and more advertising on their content platforms. This meant it took web pages longer to load and the amount of data required to be sent to our devices was increasing at a time when unlimited data tariffs were being replaced with metered subscriptions (particularly on mobile). Digital consumers had had enough and ad blocking which up until this time had been the go to tool for privacy conscious geeks to keep their online experiences safe and uncluttered, started to appeal to the less tech savvy. 

Digital advertising has recently been described as the biggest threat to privacy not just due to the intrusive tracking and profiling of our online activities but also, as advertising becomes increasingly programmatic, the number of security risks increases as well, leaving digital consumers wide open to fraud, identity theft and other harms. Just last year Google removed 780 million bad programmatic ads from their advertising networks which were designed to exploit vulnerabilities in web browsers to take control of computers and mobile devices. 

So despite Whittingdale’s unqualified statements, digital consumers should absolutely be using ad blocking technologies to mitigate these significant risks against their properties and fundamental rights. Cyber crime costs an estimated $375 billion - $575 billion globally per year and if ad blocking can help prevent some of that drain on the global economy everyone should be using it. 

Whittingdale claims we are all irresponsible and that if we don’t start accepting advertising as the funding model for the Internet, publishers will go out of business and presumably the Internet will fail. We heard the same argument about the music industry, the book industry and the movie industry during the advent of digital technologies set to create paradigm shifts in those markets. Yet here we are 10 years later with more music, movies and published content than we have ever had.

I recently spoke at industry events for both the publishing and advertising sectors  – on the issue of privacy and ad blocking – and it became abundantly clear at each of these events that the publishing industry accept that they got it wrong, the advertising industry accept that they got it wrong – both understand that their relationships with consumers of digital content are broken and that they are responsible for breaking it.

At each of these events I explained to industry members (to wide agreement) that they need to fix these relationships if they want to stem the tide of ad blocking. 

Publishers feel like they have no control over the type of ads being forced on them by adtech companies and advertising agencies. This is a situation that needs to change – publishers should control all of the content they publish – including ads; and traditionally that was always the case. But now, they have lost that control – their relationships with advertisers and brands have been twisted and perverted to the point where publishers feel stuck in the middle, unable to give their readers the experience they desire whilst meeting the ever increasing demands of the Board to embrace the next big thing in advertising tech.

The content industry (publishers and advertisers alike) need to take a step back and understand that without an audience their entire business fails and going to war with your audience is guaranteed to accelerate that failure. 

Advertisers and brands need to understand that their route to the audience is via the publishers whose content they are poisoning through invasive technologies and an ever increasing greed for more and more data. They need to purify the water before they can persuade us to start drinking it again – they need to stop tracking and profiling us, they need to better police their networks and platforms to eliminate malvertising and they need to yield control of the experience back to the publishers who own the audience. 

At an event by WAN-IFRA (a publishing industry group) in Frankfurt recently – I told them that they need to “grow some balls” and wrestle back control from the advertising industry and I stand by that statement. They create the content which attracts the audience, they are top of the value chain and as such they should be in control of what they publish, not the myriad of data feeders that inject their venom into the digital content experience. 

Research by the developers of ad blocking technologies, the advertising industry, the publishing industry and even companies which provide ways to circumvent ad blocking have made it very clear that digital consumers will not accept the current model. The industry already has the solution – they already know what is wrong and how to fix it; the problem is they still feel they can force us to accept what they want instead of changing their focus to what we will accept. 

The adtech industry claims to know what people want yet seems to repeatedly fail to comprehend that we don’t want what they are peddling – we don’t want to be tracked, we don’t want to be profiled and we don’t want to be told what we want. Whittingdale is wrong. It is not digital consumers who are destroying the digital economy, it is the very publishers and advertisers he is speaking on behalf of. Ad blocking is not the cause of the downfall of online publishing – it is a symptom of the disease that is data gluttony.

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