By Don Marti
Legitimate consumer privacy tools and high-reputation publishers, working together, can transform advertising on the web. Tools and sites can help users block low-value, cold-call-like targeted ads while permitting signal-carrying ads, the ones that respect users’ choices not to be tracked.
It’s one goal of the Information Trust ExchangeGoverning Association to help publishers and privacy-tool makers. High-reputation publishers have a responsibility to both educate readers about the problems of adtech as usual and hold tool vendors to high standards.
The News Media Alliance (NMA), formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America, is making some real progress here. In May, 2016, it filed a complaint (PDF) with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission about four ad-blocking practices. The NMA asks the FTC to:
- Require ad blockers engaged in “paid whitelisting” programs to end such programs or to cease misrepresenting the nature of their services to consumers.
- Require ad blockers to discontinue ad substitution practices.
- Require ad blockers claiming that they make publishers whole to cease making deceptive statements that mislead consumers.
- Prevent ad blockers from evading metered subscription services and paywalls.
“Newspapers recognize that ad blocking technology is responding to a consumer demand, and publishers are working diligently to improve the ad experience for consumers,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of the NMA. “However, some ad blocking firms have implemented ad blocking business models that deceive consumers. These practices undercut our members’ ability to provide a satisfying customer experience because the consumer is not receiving the whole truth.”
(Washington Post story: Newspapers escalate their fight against ad blockers by Elizabeth Dwoskin)
If we clarify item No. 4, above, to include only deliberate paywall avoidance, and not privacy measures that accidentally reset the article count for “soft paywalls”, then NAA has just done a huge favor for the developers of legit privacy tools.
The NMA has written a pretty good start for a code of conduct for privacy tool developers and users.
Legit privacy tools are in “compliance” with the NAA’s rules already. If you look at the aloodo.org tracking protection tools page, everything we link to or recommend already avoids the four no-nos. It shouldn’t be a problem for any tool to avoid all of these. Paid whitelisting is a naked protection racket, ad substitution is reputation-harming scribbling of unreviewed ads into a publisher’s context (yes, adtech does it too, that’s not the point) and deception and sneaking in without paying are just so obviously wrong that why am I even typing this?
It’s possible that some privacy tools can have the result of resetting a soft paywall, but it’s possible to protect a soft paywall from accidental resets, and I can get behind a code of conduct that bans specific functionality to get around paywalls.
The first reaction to the NMA complaint was disappointing. (Please, Twitter and Medium, copy this YouTube feature already.) A bunch of early comments were along the lines of “well, existing adtech is bad, too!”
Yes, we know. Third-party tracking is not just a privacy issue. The trackability of users from high-value to low-value sites causes data leakage, which results in lower revenue for publishers, and enables fraud. And adtech targeting breaks economic signaling, which means publishers aren’t just getting a smaller piece of the pie, it’s a smaller pie.
Today’s adtech is a trash fire of fraud, malware, and low revenue. But that means privacy tools have the opportunity to be different, by avoiding publisher-hostile schemes. When software developers send a privacy message but then just set a competing trash fire, they’re wasting that opportunity.
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s model “do-not-track” policy
- More news about the MNA ad-blocking complaint to the FTC
- A Federal Trade Commission primer on privacy and ad frequency capping
- Federal Trade Commission primer on online tracking (June 2016)
(Don Marti is a former editor of Linux Journal now working on open source at Mozilla. He is a developer on the Aloodo Project, a service designed to enable high-reputation publishers to reclaim web advertising. This article is his personal opinion and does not represent the views of his employer. A version of this post first appeared at Aloodo.org)