Why I don’t give a crap that publishers consider ad-blockers “stealing.”

People who want to get content for free should have to see ads. But they shouldn’t have to be tracked.

First, let me just say that I’ve been in the advertising business for more years than I care to admit. So I get it when publishers bemoan ad-blockers that “steal eyeballs,” costing them the ad revenues they rightly deserve.

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 other expenses.

With this business model, the deal between most publishers and readers is simple: A reader who consumes content for free has to see ads. It’s a model that has worked successfully for newspapers, magazines, radio stations and TV networks for decades. It seems fair enough to most people, so there’s no intrinsic problem with it (seizure-inducing flashing banner ads aside).

Now, if all an ad-blocker did was prevent the viewing of said 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.

Banner ads are only one 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 numerous 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.

But, that’s not the biggest problem I have with online advertising.

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 the sites place on the site — 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.

Forbes.com has 34 scripts running on its site dedicated ONLY to advertising, versus four for actual content.

Why do data brokers even want all your info? So they can sell it to companies that want to advertise to you. Seems harmless enough, right?

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 and maintain a veritable clearing house of potential identity theft.

Combined with other offline sources, these online profiles include your name, physical address, birth date, sex, religion, race, and almost anything else you can imagine —more than enough information to allow identity thieves to guess your social security number and wipe you out financially.

Data is the new money.

Every company or other 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.

Facebook — and a thousand other smaller companies like it — are in the business of collecting and monetizing personally identifiable information.

I’m not particularly concerned that thieves will try to phish me as I am reasonably confident in my ability to spot most phishing emails. Rather I’m concerned that scammers will use data stolen from less tech-savvy people to convince my family or friends that the thief is an old colleague or 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 data 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.

I call bullshit.

In the US, there is no single, comprehensive federal law (national) regulating the collection and use of personal data. —Practical Law

In effect, publishers are “legally” — but immorally— collecting my personal data (something worth far more than any ad revenues they get) AND worse, expecting me to actually help them do it.

So 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 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.”

UPDATE: Try a new service called Scroll, that eliminates all the aforementioned nastiness by dolling out money you give them ($5/mo) to the publications you read the most. Now that’s a win-win situation. I hope more publications get on board