First, let me just say that I've been in the advertising business for more years than I care to admit. So, when publishers bemoan ad-blockers that “steal eyeballs,” costing them the ad revenues they richly deserve, I get it. Some of those ad revenues bought me my house.
Do ad-blockers steal from content publishers?
Advertising frequently pays for much, if not all, of a website's many costs—everything from writers, editors, photographers, media reps, coders, and salespeople to hosting servers, bandwidth, and more. I also know this first-hand because I run Google Ads on my own personal travel site to help offset hosting and over-priced airport sandwiches.
The deal between most publishers and readers is simple: A reader who consumes content for free has to see ads. It's a business model that newspapers, magazines, radio stations and TV networks have used successfully for decades. When it came to the Internet, the deal still seemed fair enough to most people at first, so few had any intrinsic problem with it (seizure-inducing flashing banner ads aside).
And, if all an ad-blocker did was prevent the viewing of online ads, I'd agree that ad-blocking software agents were unfairly upending the reader/publisher relationship. But blocking ads is not the entirety of what ad-blockers do.
Ads are only a small part of online advertising.
Today, online ads are more than just obnoxious come-ons and shouty promotions — they're Trojan horses for viruses and scams. There have been so many examples of ads exposing people's computers to malware that there's even a name for it: “Malvertising.” So right there, I don't want ads on my computer. Period.
Why is there that much programming code in a simple advertisement? Pure, unadulterated greed.
Everything went to shit because…money.
If online publishers had simply stuck with “contextual advertising” to determine ad placement—that is, matching ads to the page topic—they wouldn't be having this problem today. But no, the publishers wanted more. So they bought into Google's untested “behavioral advertising” hype.
Only after effectively funding the construction of the “Surveillance Capitalism Industrial Complex” did they find out that behavioral ad targeting costs more and yet doesn't work any better. Hilarious!
Now, as I've said, I don't worry about the companies that buy the data — they are, in my experience, a mostly benign evil. (“Buy our stuff!” “No, I don't want to!” “Okay…we'll try again later!”) What I DO worry about is a bunch of unscrupulous, and entirely unregulated, data brokers who collect, maintain, and store my personal data.
Your personal data is the new gold rush.
The larger, and far more worrisome problem with letting online advertising load unfettered into your browser is the unregulated cabal of data-collecting companies who use these ads to secretly track people's online habits and activities.
These companies use invisible tracking code — embedded in the sites you visit or in the ads themselves — to follow you all over the Internet, from site to site, slowly and methodically building a frighteningly detailed profile of you and your “diverse” interests, prurient or otherwise.
Combine your online data with countless offline sources and these companies know your name, physical address, birth date, sex, religion, race, and almost anything else you can imagine. Should hackers gain access to this treasure trove, an all too common occurrence, it's more than enough information to allow identity thieves to guess your social security number and wipe you out financially.
It's not a question of “if” your data will get leaked.
These data brokers are a veritable clearing house of potential identity theft. Every organization that retains people's personal information—for whatever reason—is a target for crackers. And the more information these entities store, the bigger a target they become for identity thieves because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that's where the data is.
Now, I'm not particularly concerned that thieves will try to phish me because I am reasonably confident in my ability to spot most fake emails. But I'm very concerned that someone will use my data to convince my family or friends that the scammer is “an old work colleague or college friend,” so it's okay to divulge where I went to high school, the name of my first pet, or whatever piece of innocuous-seeming info is the final answer to my bank's security questions.
Data brokers should face draconian penalties for leaks.
These third-party data collectors are decidedly NOT part of the traditional reader/publisher pact. At no point did I ever agree to give any publisher a time-dated list of all my online activities from the moment I read their content until the end of time (well, as far as I know — I didn't actually read the Terms Of Service).
When I read Wired on the john, no one from the magazine watches me (at least I hope not, for their sake). As a paying reader — yes, I value their content enough to actually pay for it — I'm happy to let the Wired folks know which ads interest me because I have a consenting relationship with the publication.
Yet it's somehow perfectly legal for data brokers to surreptitiously track my activities across desktops and devices without my knowing or permission, and without any kind of recompense, at least. I call bullshit.
In effect, publishers are “legally” — but immorally— collecting my personal data (something worth far more than any ad revenues they get) AND, more incredibly, expecting me to actually help them do it. Fuck that.
Until Congress passes some effective data protection laws, or publications start charging for their content (sans tracking scripts), I'll keep doing anything I need to protect my computer and my personal data—because no one else is certainly going to do it for me.
For specific steps to take, see my post: “Stop online companies from stealing, selling, (and leaking) your personal data.”