Essays on Technology and Culture

I Work in Online Publishing and I Block Ads. Here’s Why.

The sky is not falling, at least not yet. That seems to be the takeaway from most of the pieces, for and against, I’ve read on ad blocking in the wake of iOS 9, and the Content Blocker drizzle. [1] It’s something I’ve watch with interest as both a dedicated ad blocker, and an employee in the world of ad-supported digital publishing. As a consumer of content, I don’t want my data tracked and sold, and I don’t want ads to interrupt what I’m reading or watching. As a guy with $36,000 in student loan debt, who also needs to pay rent and eat, I want to make sure I still have a job.

There’s a balance to be struck, for sure. Advertising is a necessity in a society where people have things to sell, and other people have things they need to buy. It’s that simple. We will never live in a world that is free of advertising, and I am fine with this. What I, and so many others, are not fine with, are ads that keep us from doing whatever it is we set out to do, and ads that follow us around on our travels across the web. In my digital publishing role, I get to see some incredibly detailed information about the audience for target advertisements.

I’m forced to be vague here, and this level of details is partially a function of pulling publicly available data sources for the information on a class of professionals, and paying handsomely for the privilege. With all the information everyone is feeding to social networks, which also work as ad networks, data brokers, and track us across the web, it’s not a leap to assume some office drone is able to pore through my personal information collected for the purposes of ad tracking, as well. Ad and tracker blocking software is the only tool most of us have to change that balance. It’s possible to opt-out of a lot of social and ad tracking and data collection, but it’s a huge pain to do so.

For this reason, among others, I am not willing to join ranks with publishers who rage and bluster against ad blocking as if the users were amoral thieves. If anything, it’s the ad networks who collect our data who are the thieves, because we never explicitly consented to giving them our data in the first place. We put our information out there into the aether, and they suck it down and spit it back in our faces with badly targeted ads that follow us wherever we click to next. But that targeting is getting better by the day.

This is pure avarice on the side of the advertisers—their dream of a day of one-to-one targeted ads that offer us exactly what we want, exactly when we want it requires massive data collection, to make happen. The idea of an advertiser knowing exactly what I want and showing it to me gives me the willies. It should give you the willies too for the reasons I outlined above: if the advertiser, their network, or their algorithm has that much data, who else does? What protections exist? Why should we trust advertisers to use our data ethically?

The answers: everyone with database access—authorized and otherwise, none, and we shouldn’t.

Yet, not all advertisers behave this way. The Deck, which advertises on a number of sites run by people I respect and admire, released a privacy statement explaining their disinterest in tracking users. I’m happy, when I visit a site with Deck ads, to whitelist them in my ad blocker. Their ads respect me, and in turn, I will respect them back. This is a fair exchange. The Deck only knows that someone saw the ad, and that’s all the information I think it is fair to give to an advertiser, or the network it runs on. I also think it’s fair for a website owner to know that I visited their site, and even what platform and browser I used to do so. Anything beyond that is too far.

I’m also not a fan of the idea of Facebook, Google, Snapchat, or even Apple being the primary distribution points for content. It gives too much power to companies that have too much control over what we see and do already. Independence is essential for good journalism, for free expression, and I’ll remain suspicious of anything that risks violating that. This suspicion even extends towards Native Advertising, the practice of advertisers sponsoring and even providing, content for websites—though I’m more open to it than Ben Brooks. [2] The acceptability of Native Advertising is based on our trust of the publisher to choose sponsors in an ethical way, but all too often money will trump ethics any day of the week, especially for larger publishers.

At least we’re talking about solutions. I might be willing to drop my ad blocker and my tracking script blocker if, say, Maciej Cegłowski’s “Six Fixes” were implemented across the web. Ad blockers that make judgment calls about what ad networks and advertisers are behaving ethically, such as Dean Murphy’s Crystal app are another option. As networks and sites learn to behave and treat audiences with respect, it can be easier to whitelist them.

I don’t know how this will shake out, though research suggests that it certainly won’t be the bloodbath that online publisher’s assume it to be. There will be shifts, and there will be pain for any number of online publishers. If you get any emails from a publisher, expect to see more ads there—iOS Content Blockers don’t work in the Mail app. Expect more “Native Advertising,” and expect companies pushing you disable your ad blocker, or pull other tricks. Once it all shakes out, it’ll be something like the war on pop-up ads, and, for a while, the pendulum will shift to a calmer, quieter web with more respectful ads that we won’t mind seeing. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Note: An earlier version of this piece linked to an interview with Dean Murphy. The interview is good, but the interviewer was operating under false pretenses, and for the sake of the tech blogging community at large, I have removed the link.

  1. Seriously, there were, what, five that came out on the first day?  â†©
  2. While a membership model might work for an independent, solo publisher, you can’t run anything at scale that way. Subscription and circulation revenue in print has long been a fraction of advertising revenue for publishing.  â†©