You are currently browsing the archive for the Technology category.

ripping up a contractLet’s reset our thinking to what a user’s expectations are, when operating a browser and interacting with pages and sites.

In my browser, when I visit a page, I am requesting that page. I am not requesting stuff other than that page itself. This is what the hypertext protocol (http) provides.

(Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. They also scaffold the social contract.)

Likewise, when I visit a site (such as a seller) with a service on the Web, I am not requesting stuff other than what that site presents to me in text and graphics.

So, for example, when I go to, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. And when I go to, I expect the browser to display the index page of the site — and, if I have some kind of relationship with that site, recognition that I’m a returning visitor or customer.

In neither of those cases do I expect tracking files, other than those required to remember state, which was the original purpose of Lou Montouli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. Now known as just “the cookie,” it is in ubiquitous use today. In  Lou’s detailed history of that creation he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.”

Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world. This time I’ll use my sister as an example of a typical reader. She’s a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy, and organized in the way she interacts with what we generally call “content.”

When a newspaper arrives, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out all the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons that might interest her. Then she strips out sections that don’t interest her. The Travel section might go on one Sunday, the Sports section on another.

Then, when she reads the paper, she ignores most of the ads. One exception might be the magazine section, which tends to contain full-page brand ads by companies like Apple and Toyota. Those she might notice and like at some level. It all depends

My point is that she consciously blocks some ads and allows some others, some of which she pays attention to, but most of which she does not.

This kind of interaction is what the user expects the hypertext protocol (http) and good manners on the part of websites and services will provide. Websites that spy on users outside of their own domains (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple.

Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But they should be opt-in for users, not opt-out. Alas, that kind of tracking is a baby in the blocking bathwater. (The EFF’s Privacy Badger blocks many of these by default, and provides sliders for degrees of opting in or out of them.)

How did we get from the online world Lou Montouli sought to improve in ’94 and the one we have today? Check the metaphors for what we had and what we’ve lost.

Back in the mid-’90s we called the browser our car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, are privacy technologies. They give us ways of operating in the world that conceal our most private spaces — ones where others are not welcome, except by invititation.

But, thanks to Zuboff’s Laws, our browsers became infected with spyware. Here is what those laws say:

  1. Everything that can be automated will be automated.
  2. Everything that can be informated will be informated.
  3. Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.

Sure, some of adtech’s surveillance is meant to give us a “better advertising experience” or whatever. Buy that’s beside the main point: it breaks the social contract in both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. It gives us what none of us asked for and what most of us don’t want.

A few years ago, we tried to send a message to publishers and advertisers with Do Not Track, but it was fought, mocked and ignored by those to whom it spoke.

Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we took actions that can’t be ignored, by installing ad and tracking blockers. In doing so we acted as free and independent agents, just as we do in the everyday world with our clothing, our shelter and our cars.

What we need next are ways for us to engage constructively with publishers, in alignment with well-understood social contracts long established in the everyday world, and embodied in the hypertext protocol.

Engagement will also give us scale. As I explain in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War,

Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.

But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.

If we leave fixing things up to publishers and the adtech industry, all of us will be given different prosthetic hands, each of which will interact in different ways that are not of our choosing and give us no scale. In fact that is what we already get with the DAA’s Ad Choices and Ghostery’s massive opt-out list. We see how well that worked.

The road to personal independence and engagement scale is a long one.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Except in 1999, when we wrote that, we didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew we would, sooner or later, as a native entitlement of the Net.

In The Data Bubble, I said,

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

In fact it the tide didn’t turn, because we didn’t yet have the tools to turn it. The Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at The last entry is in 2013. They should fire it up again.

Because now, in late 2015, we have the first of those tools, with ad and tracking blockers.

But we have to do better. And by “we” I mean us human beings — and the developers working on our side for the good of everybody.

Note: This is the sixth post in a series covering online advertising, starting on 12 August. Here are the first five:

  1. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff
  2. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech
  3. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business?
  4. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them
  5. Debugging adtext assumptions

Bing’s image search now has a #HowOldRobot that appears when you mouse over an image in the results. Click on it, and you get an age. Here’s one of Catherine Deneuve:

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 1.11.15 PM

Interesting that most of the guesses for her are on the low side. (One, for Catherine as a mature adult, guesses she’s 14.)

Here’s one for Michelle, and one for Carl. (Chose those because they didn’t tend to bring up lots of shots of just one celeb.)

Ones for me tend to guess high. Sucks, but what the hell. If you don’t mind being judged by a machine that’s wrong most of the time, and your image is splattered around online, give it a whack.

And see if you don’t like Bing’s image search better than Google’s.

The big advantage for me is that clicked images open in another tab automatically. But there’s stuff I like in Google’s image search too, such as the “View more” gallery.

I use both, of course. Just wanted to point out this somewhat new Bing Thing.


ice-floes-off-greenland(Cross posted from this at Facebook)

In Snow on the Water I wrote about the ‘low threshold of death” for what media folks call “content” — which always seemed to me like another word for packing material. But its common parlance now.

For example, a couple days ago I heard a guy on WEEI, my fave sports station in Boston, yell “Coming up! Twenty-five straight minutes of content!”

Still, it’s all gone like snow on the water, melting at the speed of short term memory decay. Unless it’s in a podcast. And then, even if it’s saved, it’ll still get flushed or 404’d in the fullness of time.

So I think about content death a lot.

Back around the turn of the millennium, John Perry Barlow said “I didn’t start hearing the word ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” Same here. But the container business now looks more like plumbing than freight forwarding. Everything flows. But to where?

My Facebook timeline, standing in the vertical, looks like a core sample of glacier ice, drilled back to 1947, the year I showed up. Memory, while it lasts, is of old stuff which in the physical world would rot, dry, disintegrate, vanish or lithify from the bottom up.

But here we are on the Web, which was designed as a way to share documents, not to save them. It presumed a directory structure, inherited from Unix (e.g. domain.something/folder/folder/file.html). Amazingly, it’s still there. Whatever longevity “content” enjoys on the Web is largely owed to that structure, I believe.

But in practice most of what we pile onto the top of the Web is packed into silos such as Facebook. What happens to everything we put there if Facebook goes away? Bear in mind that Facebook isn’t even yet a decade old. It may be huge, but it’s no more permanent than a sand dune. Nothing on the Web is.

Everything on the Web, silo’d or not, flows outward from its sources like icebergs from glaciers, melting at rates of their own.

The one exception to that rule is the Internet Archive, which catches as much as it can of all that flow. Huge thanks to Brewster Kahle and friends for giving us that.

Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts on digital mortality this morning.

As you were. Or weren’t. Or will be. Or not.

Bonus link: Locking the Web open.

What follows is my comment (the first one!) under Confusion Reigns as Apple Puts the Spotlight on Mobile Ad Blocking, in AdAge. I’ve added some links.

Bury_your_head_in_the_sandMarketers should be looking at what the market wants, and why.

The market is customers, and they are speaking to marketers today by making ad blockers the most popular browser extensions, and by telling survey after survey that they dislike of having their privacy invaded by unwanted tracking (TRUSTe, Pew, Customer Commons) and that they are resigned to a status quo they don’t like (Wharton).

In other words, the “key link between brands and customers” that customers sever with ad blocking isn’t a link at all. It’s a pain in the customer’s ass, or they wouldn’t be severing it.

Apple knows ads and tracking are pains in the customers’ ass, because Apple is a B2C company that speaks every day to customers, on phones and on the floors of its stores. Apple sees there is a clear and obvious demand for Content Blocking, and want to be first to market with it. Serving that demand doesn’t hurt Apple outside of iAd, which accounts for a whopping 0.01% of Apple’s sales. (And what will Content Blocking add to Apple’s device sales? You can bet that Apple is running those numbers.)

Meanwhile marketing doesn’t speak to customers, because marketing lives in a B2B echo chamber where the voice of the customer (hello!) is inaudible or ignored. [Later: Iain Henderson has some excellent push-back on this characterization, plus some helpful guidance, in his comment here.]

Sure, marketers *think* they know what customers want, because they have Big Data and Big Analytics telling them, up to the second, what a customer might want to buy. Three problems with that: 1) there is no direct and conscious two-way interaction with customers; 2) most of the time customers aren’t buying a damn thing; and 3) guesswork based on all that data and analytics is wrong 99.x% of the time, thanks to #1 and #2.

Denying and fighting what customers want is doing huge damage to marketing and advertising, and it will only get worse as long as it continues.

Look at the damage already done to plain old impersonal brand advertising, which customers could appreciate because it wasn’t creepy and obviously helped pay for the magazines, newspapers, radio and TV shows they liked. (And none of which they thought of as “content,” by the way.)

Today we live in a dysfunctional marketing world where advertisers have been taught to want every ad to perform — while customers want every ad, and the tracking that aimed it, blocked. (AdAge should do a research piece on how direct marketing body-snatched advertising from Madison Avenue. If you don’t, your body has been snatched too.)

The only way to fix this is from the customers’ side.

What kind of ads would a customer opt in for? (No, don’t kid yourselves about “Ad Choices.” It’s just another ludicrous conceit that only makes sense in the echo chamber.)

Would customers accept ads that obviously aren’t personal (based on tracking), and clearly pay for the online goods they want and appreciate? Is there still hope for that baby?

Only if we can snatch it from the bathwater that customers’ ad blockers are throwing out.

Can we create standards-based ways for customers to express their friendly intentions regarding tracking, advertising, subscriptions and the rest of it, to marketing systems that can actually listen?

In fact there are developers working on those ways. Here’s one. (Check him out. He’s non-trivial.)

If you’re interested I can show you some more.

What I’ve always loved most about the Web† is how it allows each of us to publish on our own, as individuals, for the whole world. I started doing that as soon as I could get a dial-up account with a nearby ISP (the late Batnet of Palo Alto) in 1995.

Here is one of my first pieces, published in Reality 2.0, a directory within my self-hosted site. I’m resurrecting it here because it does a good job of explaining how easy it is to automate journalism by framing a story in terms of war or sports (and tees up some future posts). So here ya go, copied from HTML 1 and morphed on pasting by WordPress into HTML 4:


By Doc Searls
December 11, 1995


Web Wars?
What are the facts?
Let’s give a big AND to the Web
So, what IS Microsoft doing?
How to win users and influence developers
A new breed of life

Web Wars?

Am I wrong here, or has the Web turned into a Star Wars movie?

I learn from the papers that the desktop world has fallen under the iron grip of the most wealthy and powerful warlord in the galaxy. With a boundless greed for money and control, Bill Gates of Microsoft now seeks to extend his evil empire across all of cyberspace.

The galaxy’s only hope is a small but popular rebel force called Netscape. Led by a young pilot (Marc Andreesen as Luke Skywalker), a noble elder (Jim Clark as Obi-wan Kanobe) and a cocky veteran (Jim Barksdale as Han Solo), Netscape’s mission is joined by the crafty and resourceful Java People from Sun.

Heavy with portent, the headlines tromp across the pages (cue the Death Star music — dum dum dum, dum da dum, dum da dummm)…

  • “MICROSOFT TAKES WAR TO THE NET: Software giant plots defensive course based on openness”
  • “MICROSOFT UNVEILS INTERNET STRATEGY: Stage set for battle with Netscape.”

The mind’s eye conjures a vision of The Emperor, deep in the half-built Death Star of Microsoft’s new Internet Strategy, looking across space at the Rebel fleet, his face twisted with contempt. “Your puny forces cannot win against this fully operational battle station!” he growls.

But the rebels are confident. “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain,” Marc Andreessen says. “What Microsoft just did was move into our terrain.”

And Microsoft knows its strengths. December 7th, The Wall Street Journal writes, Bill Gates “issued a thinly veiled warning to Netscape and other upstarts that included a reference to the Pearl Harbor attack on the same date in 1941.”

Exciting stuff. But is there really a war going on? Should there be?

What are the facts?

After reading all these alarming headlines, I decided to fire up my own copy of Netscape Navigator and search out a transcript of Bill’s December 7th speech.

I started at Microsoft’s own site, but got an “access forbidden” message. Then I went up to the internet level of the site’s directory, but found the Netscape view was impaired. (“Best viewed with Microsoft Explorer,” it said.) I finally found a Netscape-friendly copy at Dave Winer’s site. It appears to be the original, verbatim:*

MR. GATES: Well, good morning. I was realizing this morning that December 7th is kind of a famous day. (Laughter.) Fifty-four years ago or something. And I was trying to think if there were any parallels to what was going on here. And I really couldn’t come up with any. The only connection I could think of at all was that probably the most intelligent comment that was made on that day wasn’t made on Wall Street, or even by any type of that analyst; it was actually Admiral Yamomoto, who observed that he feared they had awakened a sleeping giant. (Laughter.)

I see. The “veiled threat” was Bill’s opening laugh line. Even if this was “a veiled threat,” it was made in good humor. The rest of the talk hardly seemed hostile. Instead, Bill showed a substantial understanding of how both competition and cooperation work to build markets, and of the roles played by users, developers, leaders and followers in creating the Internet. In his final sentence, Bill says, “We believe that integration and continuity are going to be valuable to end users and developers…”

Of course, I wish he’d pay a little more attention to Macintosh users and developers, but I don’t blame him for avoiding them. I blame Apple, which dissed and sued Microsoft for years, to no positive effect. Apple played a zero-sum game and — sure enough — ended up with zero. Brilliant strategy.

Think how much farther along we would be today if this relationship was still Apple plus Microsoft, rather than Apple vs. Microsoft.

The truth is that the Web will be better served by Microsoft plus Netscape than by Microsoft vs. Netscape. Plus is what most of us want, and it’s probably what we’ll get, regardless of how the press plays the story.

Let’s give a big AND to the Web

So what is the best way to characterize Microsoft, if not as the Heaviest of Heavies?

I think Release 1.0‘s Jerry Michalski gets closest to it when he says: “Microsoft thinks more broadly than any other company about what it’s doing. Its plans include global telecommunications, information creation, applications — even community building.” That tells us a lot more than “Microsoft goes to war.”

Markets are more than battlefields. The OR logic of war and sports get us excited, but tells us little of real substance. For that we also need the AND logic of cooperation, choice, partnership and working together. What we all want most — love — is hardly an OR proposition. Imagine a lover saying “there’s only room in this relationship for one of us, baby.”

But the press is caught in an OR trance. Blind to the AND logic that gives markets their full color, the press reduces every hot story to the black vs. white metaphors of war and sports. Why cover the Web as the strange, unprecedented place it is, when you can play it as yet another story about two guys trying to beat the crap out of each other? Especially when the antagonists are little good guy and a big bad guy?

Look, the Internet didn’t take off because Netscape showed up; and it wasn’t slowed down because Microsoft didn’t. It took off because millions of people added their creative energies to something that welcomed them — which was mostly each other. Death-fight competition didn’t make the Web we know now, and it won’t make the Web that’s coming, either.

That’s because every site on the Web is AND logic at work. So is every vendor/developer relationship that ever produced a product or created a market. So is the near-infinite P/E ratio Netscape enjoys today.

So, what IS Microsoft doing?

“Embrace and extend,” Bill Gates called it in his December 7 talk. That’s what he said Microsoft will do with products from Oracle, Spyglass, Compuserve and Sun. Is this an AND strategy? Or is it yet an other example of what Gary Reback, Judge Sporkin and other Microsoft enemies call a “lock and leverage” strategy, intended to drive out competition and let Microsoft charge tolls to every traveler on the Information Highway?

We’ll see.

It should be clear by now that the Web does not welcome OR strategies. Microsoft Network was an OR strategy, and it didn’t work. If history repeats itself (as it usually does with Microsoft), the company will learn from this experience (as Apple learned earlier from its eWorld failure) and move on to do the Right Thing.

Not that most of the press would notice. To them Microsoft is The Empire and Bill is its gold-armored emperor. But reporters are the ones putting clothes on this emperor. To the people who make Microsoft’s markets — the users and developers — “billg” is as naked as a newborn.

Take away the war-front headlines, the play-by-play reporting, the color commentary by industry analysts, the infatuation with personal wealth — and you see Bill as an extremely competitive guy who’s also trying to do right by users and developers. And hiding little in the process. Is he a bully? Sometimes. Is this bad? No, it’s typical of big companies since the dawn of business. It looks to me more like a personality trait than a business strategy. And what makes Microsoft win is far more strategic than personal.

George Gilder puts it this way in Forbes ASAP (“Angst & Awe on the Internet“):

Blinded by the robber-baron image assigned in U.S. history courses to the heroic builders of American capitalism, many critics see Bill Gates as a menacing monopolist. They mistake for greed the gargantuan tenacity of Microsoft as it struggles to assure the compatibility of its standard with tens of thousands of applications and peripherals over generations of dynamically changing technology.

How to win users and influence developers

How does Bill express that tenacity? As Dave Winer puts it in “The Platform is a Chinese Household,” Bill “sends flowers.” Bill courts developers and delivers for customers, who return the favor by buying Microsoft products.

Markets are conversations, and there isn’t a more willing conversational participant than Bill. That’s why I’m not surprised when Dave says “the only big company that’s responsive to my needs is Microsoft.” And Dave, by the way, is a pillar of the Macintosh community. To my knowledge, he hasn’t developed a DOS-compatible product since the original ThinkTank.

Users and developers don’t need to hear vendors talk about how much their competition sucks. No good ever comes of it. Is it just coincidence that Microsoft almost never bad-mouths its competition? Though Bill is hardly innocent of the occasional raspberry, he’s a long way from matching the nasty remarks made about him and his company by leaders at Sun, Apple, Netscape and Novell, just to name an obvious few.

It especially saddens me to hear competition-bashing from Guy Kawasaki, whose positive energies Apple desperately needs right now. As a customer and user of both Apple and Microsoft products, I see Guy’s “how to drive your competition crazy” rap as OR logic at its antiproductive worst.

At the opposite end of the diplomacy scale, I like the way Gordon Eubanks of Symantec has consistently been fair and constructive in his public remarks about Bill and Microsoft (and has reaped ample rewards in the process).

What makes markets work is a combination of AND and OR processes that deserve thoughtful and observant journalism. They also call for vendors who can drop their fists, open their minds and look at opportunities from users’ and developers’ points of view. This is how Microsoft came to change its Internet strategy. And this is what makes Microsoft the most adaptive company in the business, regardless of size. No wonder the laws of Darwin have been kind to them.

A new breed of life

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance…
Always substance and increase,
Always a knit of identity… always distinction…
Always a breed of life.
—Walt Whitman

Where the language of war fails, perhaps the language of Whitman can succeed.

By the great poet’s lights, the Web is a new breed of life. An original knit of identity. Its substance increases when opposite equals like Netscape and Microsoft advance out of the dimness and obey their procreant urges — not their will to kill.

The Web is a product of relationships, not of victors and victims. Not one dime Netscape makes is at Microsoft’s expense. And Netscape won’t bleed to death if Microsoft produces a worthy browser. The Web as we know it won’t be the same in six weeks, much less six months or six years. As a “breed of life,” it is original, crazy and already immense. It is not like anything. To describe it with cheap-shot war and sports metaphors is worse than wrong — it is bad journalism.

*A week after this experience, I went back to Microsoft site and found its whole Internet Strategy directory much more Netscape-friendly and nicely organized. Every presentation is there, including all the slides. Though the slides are in PowerPoint 4.0 for Windows, my Mac is able to view them with the Mac version of the program. [Back to *]

George Gilder’s Forbes ASAP article archives are at his Telecosm site.

Dave Winer’s provocative “rants” come out every few days, and accumulate at his DaveNet site. Check out “The User’s Software Company,” which inspired this essay.

† [Added on 8 September 2015] While the Web began as a hypertext project proposed to CERN by two employees there (Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Calliau) on 12 November 1990, it did not turn into the Web we know today (and one I could access through an ISP) until it opened for commercial activity on 30 April 1995. That was when the NSFnet (one of the Net’s many backbones, and the only one forbidding commercial use) stepped aside.

Check this out:


I took that screen shot at the excellent Oakleaf restaurant in Pittsboro, NC a few days ago. Note the zero bars (or dots) of telephone service, and the very respectable (tested!) data service. To confirm what the hollow dots said, I tried to make a call. Didn’t work.

This seems to be a new thing for T-Mobile in North Carolina, where I spent much of this summer — or at least in the parts of it where I visited.

The company’s mobile phone coverage is pretty lousy to begin with, on the whole: great on highways and in the larger towns; but spotty when you head into the suburbs and countryside. What changed is the sudden near-disappearance of voice phone coverage in some places where it had worked before, and the improvement at the same time of data coverage.

At my sister’s house, near a major interstate highway, I could use my phone on the porch or in the yard, but not indoors, where I’d see the most dreaded two words in mobile telephony: “no service.” Or at least that was the case in July and early August.

Then something strange happened. I started getting data service indoors at her house, and in other places where before there was nothing. But all I got was data, identified by that little “LTE.” Telephony was five empty dots. At my sister’s place I also couldn’t make or get a call out in the yard, on the street, or anywhere in the neighborhood. But the data service was now terrific.

So I’m wondering if this is just me, or if T-Mobile is lately favoring data over telephony in some places. Anybody know? (I note that T-Mobile’s coverage maps only seem to deal with data, not telephony. But maybe I’m missing something.)

By the way, I should add that I wouldn’t trade T-Mobile for any other carrier right now, because I travel a lot outside the country. In addition to fine coverage in New York, Boston, and all the places I tend to go in California, T-Mobile gives me free data roaming and texting everywhere I go, and 20¢/minute on the phone. Yes, the data rates tend to be 2G rather than 3G or 4G/LTE. But it tends to be good enough most of the time. It also makes me tolerant of a less-than-ideal coverage footprint here in the U.S.



A couple weeks ago, I posted Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, contrasting privacy-respecting brand advertising (the wheat) with privacy-offending tracking-based advertising (the chaff), better known in the industry as “adtech.”

Apple pushes both, through its own advertising business, called iAd. The company is also taking sides against both — especially adtech — by supporting Content Blocking in a new breed of mobile phone apps we can expect to see in iOS 9, Apple’s next mobile operating system, due next month.

In Apple’s Content Blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech, which I posted a few days ago, I visited the likely effects of content blocking. Since then a number of readers have pointed to posts about iAd and the opt-out choices Apple provides for advertising on iPhones and iPads.

Both iAd and the opt-outs reveal that Apple is as much in the adtech business as any other company that tracks people around the Net and blasts personalized advertising at them.

Apple also appears to be taking sides against adtech with its privacy policy, which has lately become more public and positioned clearly against the big tracking-based advertising companies (notably Google and Facebook). In September of last year, for example, Apple put up a new — that contained this paragraph:

Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t “monetize” the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.

What we have here, then, is Apple’s massive B2C business in conflict with one of its B2B businesses. Since there is a lot of history here, let’s review it.

On 8 July 2010, Engadget published iAds uses iTunes history, location information to target advertising. It begins,

We’ve heard about this before, but now that it’s up and running, this is probably worth a revisit. Apple’s iAds system actually uses lots of your information, including your iTunes purchasing history, location data, and any other download or library information it can suss out about you, to determine what ads you see. So say a few marketing firms working with the large companies now buying and selling iAds.

A recent series of ads for soap was able to target “married men who are in their late 30s and have children.” That’s very specific, and when Apple rolls out the full program, it’ll even be able to use things like iBooks purchases and iTunes movie and TV downloads to target you with advertising.

On 15 October 2014, Digiday published Apple revamps mobile ads with retargeting options. It begins,

Apple’s release of its new mobile operating system last month came with an overlooked gift for marketers: the ability to retarget ads based on users’ in-app browsing behaviors.

According to ad agencies, Apple is actively pitching the new capability as a way to effectively solve the mobile cookie problem.

Say, for example, a visitor to a retailer’s iPhone app adds a pair of shoes to his cart but ultimately decide not to buy it. In this scenario, the retailer will now be able to retarget that user with an ad for that exact pair — even in another app on his iPad. When tapped, the ad would direct him back to his abandoned checkout page and automatically add the shoes to his online shopping cart.

That was when iAd was new. Since then it has come to be regarded, at least by the online press, as something of a failure. On 16 Ocbober 2014, Business Insider published Here’s Apple’s Plan To Turn Around iAd, One Of Its Biggest Flops. The gist:

Several sources have confirmed to Business Insider that Apple is currently visiting mobile specialists at the top media agencies in New York City to push the new function. (Cross-device retargeting.)

Cross-device retargeting is of most use to retailers: if a customer spends some time looking at a dress on their iPad app but decides not to buy it, that same retailer can “retarget” them with an ad displaying an image of that dress, options to buy, or directions to the store when they next pick up their iPhone.

On 19 November 2014, AdExchanger published iAd starts selling programmatically, and explains how it works:

iAd has more than 400 targeting options for advertisers. Its audience is also validated, since users must create an iTunes account in order to download apps. With the release of iOS 8, Apple announced that those Apple IDs could be used by iAds advertisers to retarget users across their devices. Those capabilities make it a good fit for advertisers doing audience-based targeting, who often prefer transacting in programmatic channels.

iAd has scale: “Apple iAd’s sell-side SDK is one of the most penetrated SDKs in the industry,” said Michael Oiknine, CEO of Apsalar. “They now have added iTunes radio inventory, so it’s a smart yield maximization strategy for Apple and is akin to Facebook strategy, which maximizes inventory sales via FBX and PMDs.”

On 21 November 2014, Venturebeat published Apple and AdRoll enable iOS ad retargeting — with extra data from iTunes and the App Store. It begins,

In a significant move for the mobile advertising industry, Apple and retargeting leader AdRoll have announced a partnership that will see AdRoll providing its retargeting and programmatic buying capability for iAd. In addition, Apple will enable advertisers to target potential customers via access to its proprietary data sets from iTunes and the app store.

On 21 November 2014, AdWeek published Get Ready for More Mobile Ads on Your iPhones as Apple Launches New iAds. The gist:

Today, Apple is unveiling partnerships with companies like AdRoll, which will flip a switch and start serving iAds through its automated marketing platforms. This turn toward programmatic mobile advertising has been in the works for at least a year. Last year, the company stopped treating iAd like a high-end marketing platform for only the top brands with the most cash.

Apple wanted to build a self-serve mobile advertising system in house, and it bought Quattro Wireless to help. Sources said that effort faltered, and Apple decided to partner with ad tech companies like AdRoll and The Rubicon Project to compete with mobile ad giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter.

AdRoll is a retargeting specialty firm that lets marketers use their own consumer data profiles to deliver ads across such platforms. And Rubicon unexpectedly leaked word earlier this week that it was partnering with Apple.

On 22 January 2015, ExchangeWire asked What will Apple’s Ad Tech Play look like? They say,

Apple’s renewed designs on the advertising business were revealed when it was announced it was to start selling its iAd inventory on a programmatic basis, with several firms including MediaMath, Rubicon Project, among others, over four years after its iAd unit was initially launched, asking advertisers for (the then audacious sum of) $1m per campaign on its iOS devices.

Since launch, Apple’s presence in the advertising business has been largely underwhelming (apart from its own spend). But the revelation it had chosen several supply-side platforms (SSP) to sell programmatic guaranteed opportunities on behalf of the 250,000-plus App Store developers indicated its renewed designs on the sector.

The announcement itself made waves, not least because of the bungled nature of the announcement,which itself raises a number of issues to debated about Apple’s influence in the ad tech sector (more on that later).

The initial announcement read: “Apple’s iAd provides 400-plus targeting options to advertisers, based on hundreds of millions of validated iTunes accounts worldwide. This rich first-party data asset makes it easy for buyers to target the specific mobile audiences of their choice.”

The move represented, for the first time, that Apple is willing to loosen control over its first-party iTunes data with advertisers expected to be willing to pay top dollar for the access.

They add,

Apple has since started to advertise for roles within its iAd business, requesting applications for UK candidates to join its iAd Marketplace Sales Organisation.

Among the skills requested are: “Apple’s customers on the various products iAd has to offer as well as how to leverage iAd’s self service buying platform, iAd Workbench.”

In addition: “Third-party tags familiarity a plus.”

What is clear, from all these pieces and many others like them, is that Apple’s adtech business is little if any different from the rest of them — meaning just as creepy and privacy-abusing — and notable as well for failing to live up to its original ambitions, which were both huge and (via Business Insider) outlined by Saint Steve himself:

At launch, Jobs set out the bold ambition that iAd would capture 50% of the mobile ad market. Apple marketed iAd as a best-in-class solution for advertisers because it owns both the hardware and operating system the ads ride on and gains valuable data when people sign up for Apple ID to register for iTunes accounts. That means it can target ads by age, gender, home address, iTunes purchases and App Store downloads.

However, it’s still somewhat behind that lofty 50% target. iAd made up just 2.5% of the mobile ad revenue booked in the US last year, according to eMarketer, behind Google which takes the lion’s share (37.7%) and Facebook (17.9%). The most recent data from IDC states Apple generated $125 million in mobile ad sales in 2012.

Apple’s total sales in FY 2012 were $125 billion, or 1000x its mobile ad sales that year. Put another way, iAd contributed 0.01% to Apple’s sales.

Meanwhile, does any Apple customer want advertising on their iPhone or iPad?

Apple knows the answer to that question, which is why Apple provides ways for you to “limit ad tracking on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch” and “ads based on your interests.”* (Just go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising to “Limit Ad Tracking,” and to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services. to turn off “Location Based iAds.”) And soon we’ll have Content Blocking as well.

Sacrificing its adtech business would position Apple in full alignment with three things:

  1. Tim Cook’s privacy statement. It would take the loopholes out of that thing.
  2. Market demand. People are fed up with losing their privacy online — almost all of it to the tracking-based advertising business. (Sources: Pew, TRUSTe, Customer Commons, Wharton.)
  3. The moral high ground called simple human decency. Most people don’t want to be tracked in the online world any more than they want to be tracked in the physical one. Nor do they want information about them known by first parties to be sold to third parties, or to anybody, with our without their knowledge, no matter how normative that practice has become.

Dropping adtech would also be good for iAd, which could then concentrate on placing non-tracking-based brand ads, which are more valuable anyway: to brands, to publishers and to the marketplace. Also to Apple itself, because they would be selling wheat, rather than chaff.

Until then, the loopholes persist in Tim Cook’s privacy statement, and Apple retains major conflicts between its massive B2C businesses and its struggling B2B adtech business.

It will be interesting to see what the company does once the Content Blocking chemo hits the App Store bloodstream.

* “Based on your interests” (aka “interest based advertising“) is a delusional conceit by both adtech (examples here , here and here) and online retailing (prime example: Amazon). Neither visiting sites nor buying are measures of interests. All they show are actions that could mean anything — or nothing.

The interest-based advertisers say our interests are “inferred” by what we do (and they like to observe, constantly and everywhere). And yet those inferences are weakened by another assumption that is flat-out wrong, nearly all the time: that we are always in a shopping mode. In fact we are not.

We are, in fact, always in an owning mode, which is why I think that’s the real greenfield for e-commerce. If companies shifted a third of what they spend on adtech over to customer service, they would vastly increase both customer loyalty and brand value.

By the way, Apple knows this, possibly better than any other technology company. That’s one more reason why I think their B2C smarts will correct the adtech crowd-following errors of their B2B ways.

[Later…] @JamesDempsey tweets,

iOS 9 content blocking is in Safari. iAds appear in apps—not web pages: iAds not blocked.

Good to know. Apple’s iAd site doesn’t make that clear (to me, at least). What this tells me is that iAd is in the chaff business while Content Blocking encourages wheat on Safari. Doesn’t change the point of this post, or the earlier ones.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Intravenous equipmentThe tide of popular sentiment is turning against tracking-based advertising — and Apple knows it. That’s why they’re enabling “content blocking” in iOS 9 (the new mobile operating system that will soon go in your iPhone and iPad).

Says Apple, “Content Blocking* gives your extensions a fast and efficient way to block cookies, images, resources, pop-ups, and other content.”

This is aimed straight at tracking-based advertising, known in the trade as adtech.* And Apple isn’t alone:

[*Note: far I know, there was not a term for tracking-based advertising until adtech seemed to emerge as the front-runner. I chose it for this post because others (e.g. the first two examples above) have done the same. Tell me a better word and I’ll swap it in. And if you want to know why we need to distinguish  between advertising based on tracking people and advertising that is not, read my last post, Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.]

Here’s Apple’s tech-speak on the feature:

Your app extension is responsible for supplying a JSON file to Safari. The JSON consists of an array of rules (triggers and actions) for blocking specific content. Safari converts the JSON to bytecode, which it applies efficiently to all resource loads without leaking information about the user’s browsing back to the app extension.

This means the iOS platform will now support developers who want to build sophisticated apps that give users ways to block stuff they don’t like, such as adtech tracking and various forms of advertising — or all advertising — and to do it privately.

This allows much more control over unwanted content than is provided currently by ad and tracking blockers on Web browsers, and supports this control at the system level, rather than at the browser level. (Though it is executed by the browser.)

How likely is it that these apps will be built? 100%. One of those is Crystal, by Dean Murphy. His pitches:

  1. Remove advert banners, blocks, popovers, autoplay videos, App Store redirects & invisible tracking scripts that follow you around the web.
  2. Pages render more than 3.9x faster on average**.
  3. Reduces data use by 53% on average**.

[**Benchmarks calculated from a selection of random pages from 10 popular sites.]

All three of these address obvious appetites by customers in the marketplace:

  1. To avoid ads, and being tracked.
  2. To speed things up.
  3. To minimize data usage, for which mobile carriers charge money.

In iOS 9 content blocking will transform the mobile Web: I’ve tried it., Owen Williams (@ow) of TheNextWeb gives Crystal a spin, finding it delivers on its promises.

If I read Owen right, he believes Content Blocking will have two results:

  1. Publishers will lose, because they depend on advertising that will be blocked; and
  2. Apple will win, because publishers will be driven to the company’s News app, on which Apple can make money with its own advertising system, called iAd.

While these assumptions might be correct, they are part of a much larger picture, which will surely change as content blockers such as Crystal get adopted. So let’s look at that picture.

  1. The market is very unhappy with abuses to personal privacy. Studies by Pew, TRUSTe, Customer Commons and Wharton all make clear that more than 90% of the connected population doesn’t like privacy abuse on the commercial Web. Following people with tracking cookies and beacons violates their privacy. This is a big reason why ad and tracking blocking, through popular browser extensions and add-ons, is already high and continues to go up. It is therefore safe to say that iOS apps like Crystal will be very popular.
  2. There are two kinds of advertising at issue here, and it is essential to separate them (which I do, at length, in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff). One is tracking-based advertising, or adtech. That’s the kind that wants to get personal, and depends on spying on people. The other is plain old brand advertising, which isn’t based on tracking, and is targeted at populations rather than individuals. Content Blocking is aimed squarely at adtech.
  3. Apple’s iAd is for brand advertising, not adtech. At least that’s what I gather from Apple’s literature. (See here, here, here and here.) This puts them on the side of wheat, and Apple’s competitors — notably Google, Facebook and all of adtech — on the side of chaff.
  4. Apple has put a big stake in the ground on the subject of privacy. This is clearly to differentiate itself from adtech in general, and from Google and Facebooks in particular.
  5. Brand advertising is more valuable to publishers than adtech. Its provenance and value are clear and obvious and it sells for better prices. Also, while some of it may be annoying, none of it shares its business model with spam, which adtech does. And brand advertising uncorrupted by fraud, which is rampant in adtech — so rampant, in fact, that T.Rob Wyatt, a security expert, calls adtech “the new digital cancer.”

This is why content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech. It is also why everybody involved in the advertising-funded online ecosystem should start separating the wheat from the chaff, and to make clear that the wheat — plain old non-tracking-based brand advertising — is (to mix metaphors) the baby in the advertising bathwater that users will start throwing out with their content blockers.

However it goes down, the inevitable results, long term, will be these:

  1. Brand advertising (the non-tracking-based kind) will be seen again as the most legitimate form of advertising.
  2. Brand advertising will again be credited for doing the good work of funding publishers (also broadcasters, podcasters and the rest).
  3. Adtech, and spying in general, will be shunned, as it deserves to be.
  4. Adtech will still live on, rehabilitated and cleansed, as a trusted symbiote of users who give clear and unambiguous permission for trackers they bless to dwell in their private spaces and give them optimal personalized advertising experiences.

In other words, what I said at the close of the Advertising Bubble chapter of The Intention Economy will come true:

When the backlash is over, and the advertising bubble deflates, advertising will remain an enormous and useful business. We will still need advertising to do what only it can do. What will emerge, however, is a market for what advertising can’t do. This new market will be defined by what customers actually want, rather than guesses about it.

* As a term, “content blocking” is an unfortunate choice, since until now it meant government censorship. But the deed is done. From this point forward it means you get to block stuff you don’t want happening on your mobile device.

Later (2:36pm) — So I tweeted this post here, not long after it went up, and the response is split between yea and nay (though mostly yea). Since I have no argument with the yeas, I’ll take on the nays…

@cpokane writes,

it is offensive to us who work in adtech by day and nurse the result of cancer by night, at home. disappointing metaphor.

Gareth Holmes (@mgrholmes) adds these:

No offence to but comparing ad tech to cancer is beyond hyperbole. FACT: ad tech has been keeping the internet free since 1993

having never met I only hope he doesn’t have to wait until he’s lying next to a dying loved one to realise he was wrong.

And Vlad Stein (@vstein) weighs in with this:

Couldn’t imagine a stupider, more offensive title. Ad tech is what makes free online content viable, like it or not.

No offence taken. Or meant to be given. Cancer is a common metaphor for many things that are not. So is chemo: a medicine that sickens a patient while killing (or at least trying to kill) his or her cancer. Tell me a better metaphor and I’ll gladly use it. (I have also experienced loved ones dying of cancer, and I’m not sure they would have disapproved of the metaphor.)

As for hyperbole, guilty as charged. I’m making a strong point here, and one almost nobody else (other than Don Marti and Bob Hoffman) is making — or has seen sunk in. The market sentiment against surveillance-based marketing — aka adtech — is strong, growing, and almost entirely ignored by the whole adtech business.

As for Apple’s nature as a company, they are hardly pure. In fact, there is a vast inconsistency between what they’re doing on the B2C side with Content Blocking and on the B2B side with adtech.

On the B2C side, which is 99+% of what Apple does, the company works on behalf of its paying customers. This is huge, because there isn’t a customer on Earth who wants to be tracked like an animal without clear and explicit permission, or to have pages slowed by tracking cookies, beacons and ads fed by unknown and unwelcome servers. Especially on mobile. Apple knows this because they talk on the phone and in stores every day with those customers. They’ve also seen abundant research (some cited above) that makes clear how much people hate having their privacy violated, which Adtech does with abundant impunity. Meanwhile adtech doesn’t talk to those customers. It only follows them. Ain’t the same.

On the B2B side, Apple with iAd has been in the adtech business from the start, in 2010. (I visit all this in my next post.) While they don’t allow third party cookies or tracking, they do allow advertisers to aim their ads based on what Apple knows about you from your iTunes and App Store purchases, plus other intelligence the company gathers from its interactions with you. This is adtech, pure and simple.

So yes, Apple is having it both ways.

I suspect Apple will reconcile the two by pushing non-tracking-based brand ads for higher prices. If they do that, both publishers and brands will appreciate the lack of reader confusion about the provenance and motives of those ads. But I don’t know. We’ll see.

Next, saying adtech (or anything) has kept the Net free is like saying coupon flyers have kept geology free. The Net was born free and remains that way. Same goes for the Web. They support an infinite variety of sites, services and activities, and not just commercial ones. (More about that here, here and here.)

In fact, commercial activity was impossible on the Internet before NSFnet (the one non-commercial network within the Internet) stood down on 30 April 1995. After that ecommerce took off. (Amazon and eBay were both born in ’95.) So did advertising, but not as fast. Adtech (or ad tech) didn’t take off until well after the turn of the millennium.

This blog has been free and viable since 1998, by the way, without an ounce of advertising. So has everything Dave Winer‘s done. Without Dave we wouldn’t have blogging, syndicating (e.g. RSS) or podcasting as we know it.

Something worth thinking about: if we had jobbed out inventing and developing the Net and the Web to commercial interests, would they even exist?

@Ertraeglichkeit writes,

@dsearls what did the NSFnet bring, that it started “commercial activity” on the net and say not hotwired in 1994 with ad banners?

The Internet is a collection of networks united by agreements called protocols. Those protocols said data should be passed between any one end and any other end over any path available, on a best effort basis. This means the data you send to me could go over any path on any network between us on the whole thing called the Internet. This also meant that if any one network forbid one kind of activity, it would do for the whole internetwork. Because the NSFnet (National Science Foundation Network) forbid commercial activity on itself, and the NSFnet was a member of the Internet, it forbid commercial activity for the whole thing. So, when the NSFnet went down on 30 April, 1995, it opened the whole Internet to commercial activity. That’s a short version. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend Wikipedia’s article on the NSFnet.

[August 27] Bonus link from Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian (and a hero of all-wheat advertising): Is Our Long Digital Nightmare Coming To An End? Writes he,

I can think of nothing that has done more harm to the internet than adtech.

It is a plague. It interferes with virtually everything we try to do on the web. It has cheapened and debased advertising. It has helped spawn criminal empires. It is in part responsible for unprecedented fraud and corruption. It has turned marketing executives into clueless baboons. And it is destroying the idea of privacy, one of the backbones of democracy.

And for what? 8 clicks in 10,000 impressions?

But maybe there is hope for those of us who hate adtech.

Sure hope I’m right.

wheatAdvertising used to be simple. You knew what it was, and where it came from.

Whether it was an ad you heard on the radio, saw in a magazine or spotted on a billboard, you knew it came straight from the advertiser through that medium. The only intermediary was an advertising agency, if the advertiser bothered with one.

Advertising also wasn’t personal. Two reasons for that.

First, it couldn’t be. A billboard was for everybody who drove past it. A TV ad was for everybody watching the show. Yes, there was targeting, but it was always to populations, not to individuals.

Second, the whole idea behind advertising was to send one message to lots of people, whether or not the people seeing or hearing the ad would ever use the product. The fact that lots of sports-watchers don’t drink beer or drive trucks was beside the point, which was making the brand familiar to everybody.

In their landmark study, “The Waste in Advertising is the Part that Works” (Journal of Advertising Research, December, 2004, pp. 375-390), Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier say brand advertising does more than signal a product message; it also gives evidence that the parent company has worth and substance, because it can afford to spend the money. So branding was about sending a strong economic signal along with a strong creative signal.

Plain old brand advertising also paid for the media we enjoyed. Still does, in fact.

But advertising today is now also digital. That fact makes advertising much more data-driven, tracking-based and personal. Nearly all the buzz and science in advertising today flies around the data-driven, tracking-based stuff, which now comprises a massive industry that would have CMOs, the press and publishers all assume that the best advertising is the most targeted, the most real-time, the most data-driven, the most personal. And that old-fashioned brand advertising is hopelessly retro.

In terms of actual value to the marketplace, however, the old-fashioned stuff is wheat and the new-fashioned stuff is chaff.

To explain why I say that, let’s start with tracking-based advertising’s two big value-subtracts: 1) un-clarity about where any given ad comes from; and 2) un-clarity about whether or not any given ad is personal.

For example, take the one ad that appears for me, in my Firefox browser, in this Washington Post story:


What put that ad there?

If I click on the tiny blue button on the upper right corner of the ad (called “Ad Choices,” which I’ll visit later), I get to a linkproof “About Google Ads” page. It mostly pitches Google advertising to potential advertisers, but also says “you may also see ads based on your interests and more.” How do they know my interests? By tracking me, of course.

Was this ad tracking-based? Probably not, because the ad is nowhere near any interest of mine. Also, it was the only ad that got past the tracking blockers I have on that browser. According to my Ghostery add-on, these entities are following me on the Washington Post site:


Oddly, Google isn’t one of them. But then, Ghostery doesn’t see, or stop, as many trackers Privacy Badger, which I also have installed. Here’s that list:


Since I’m not currently running an ad blocker on Firefox, but I am running Ghostery and PrivacyBadger, I can assume that absence of tracking accounts for some of the blank white spaces flanking editorial matter, each with the word “Ad” or “Advertisement” in tiny type.

Thus I suppose that the Google/Zulily ad got through because it either wasn’t tracking-based or because I have Ghostery and/or Privacy Badger set to wave it through. But I don’t know, and that’s my point. Or one of them.

Now let’s look at what I’m missing on that page. To do that, I just disabled all tracking and ad blocking on a different browser — Google’s Chrome — and loaded the same WaPo page there.

It took twenty-seven seconds to load the whole page, including seven ads (which were the last things to load), over a fast home wi-fi connection (35Mbps downstream).

Instead of the Zulily ad I saw in Firefox, there was one in the same space for the Washington Post’s Wine Club. Only one of the six other ads featured the little blue Ad Choices button. It was one for the Gap. When I clicked on it, this came up:

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 11.01.20 AM

Then, when I then clicked on “Set your Ad Preferences,” I was sent to Gap Ad Choices, which appears to be a TRUSTe thing. The copy starts,

Interest-based ads are selected for you according to your interests as determined by companies such as ad networks and data aggregators. These companies collect information about your activity – like the pages you visit – and use it to show you ads tailored to your interests; this practice is sometimes referred to as behavioral advertising.

You can prevent our partner companies listed below from showing you targeted ads by submitting opt-outs. Opting-out will prevent you from receiving targeted ads from these companies, but you may continue to see our ads that are not shown through the use of behavioral advertising.

I’ve never heard of any of those companies, or those on the PrivacyBadger list, except for Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and other usual suspects. Nor have you, unless you’re in the business.

These companies are not brands, except inside their B2B sphere, which includes a mess of different breeds: trading desks, SSPs (Supply Side Platforms), DSPs (Demand Side Platforms), ad exchanges, RTB (real time bidding) and other auctions, retargeters, DMPs (Data Management Platforms), tag managers, data aggregators, brokers and resellers, media management systems, ad servers, gamifiers, real time messagers, social tool makers, and many more.

Take a look Ghostery’s Global Opt-Out page, which lists a giant load of companies that “use your data to target ads at you.” I haven’t counted them, but to get to the bottom of the list I had to page down twenty-eight times. And it’s still just a partial list. Lots of other companies, such as real-time auction houses, aren’t there.

Then, if you want more self-torture, check out LUMAscapes such as this one:


Or go to the master Ad Choices page. The headline there says “WILL THE RIGHT ADS FIND YOU?” — as if you want any ads at all. The copy below says,

Welcome to Your AdChoices, where you’re in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.

The Advertising Option Icon gives you transparency and control for
interest-based ads:

  • Find out when information about your online interests is being gathered or used to customize the Web ads you see.
  • Choose whether to continue to allow this type of advertising.

Watch three short videos to learn how the Icon gives you control of when the right ads find you.

And if you want to go completely bonkers, try watching the videos, which feature the little ad choices icon as the “star” in “your personal ads.”

Calling this stuff bullshit doesn’t cover it. It’s delusional. Disconnected from reality. Psychotic.

Reality is the marketplace. It’s you and me.

We have no demand for this stuff. In fact our demand, on the whole, is negative, for good reason. According to TRUSTe’s 2015 Privacy Index,

  • 92% of consumers worry about their privacy online. The top cause of concern there: “Companies collecting and sharing my personal information with other companies.”
  • 42% are more worried about their privacy than one year ago.
  • 91% “avoid doing business with companies who I do not believe protect my privacy online.”
  • 77% “have moderated their online activity in the last year due to privacy concerns.”
  • 86% “have taken steps to protect their privacy in the last twelve months.”
  • 63% “deleted cookies
  • 44% “changed privacy settings”
  • 25% “have turned off location tracking”

Ad blocking has also increased. According to PageFair’s latest report,

  • “Globally, the number of people using ad blocking software grew by 41% year over year.” (Q2 2014 to Q2 2015.) In the U.S. the growth rate was 48%. In the U.K. the rate was 82%.
  • In June 2015 “there were 191 million monthly active users for the major browser extensions that block ads.”

I should pause here to add that I use four different browsers on this laptop alone, and make it my business (as the chief instigator of ProjectVRM) to try out many different VRM (vendor relationship management) tools and services, including those for privacy protection, among which are tracking protection and ad blocking systems. These include Abine, Adblock Plus, DisconnectEmmett‘s Web Pal, Ghostery, Mozilla’s Lightbeam, PrivacyFixPrivowny and others you’ll find listed here. I switch these on and off and use them in different combinations to compare results. The one thing I can say for sure, after doing this for years, is that it’s damn near impossible for any human being — even the geekiest — to get their heads around all the different things the tracking based advertising business are doing to all of us, through our browsers and mobile apps, or how all these different approaches to prophylaxis work. The easiest thing for everybody is to install (or switch on) a single ad and tracking blocker and be done with it. Which is exactly what we’re seeing in the research above.

Another delusion by the “interest-based advertising” business is the belief that we “trade” our personal data for the goods that advertising pays for. In The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploiitation (a report from the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania), Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy and Nora Draper say that’s not the case. Specifically,

…a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data—and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs. Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them. Our study reveals that more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened.

And it isn’t just about “giving up” data. It’s about submitting to constant surveillance by unseen entities, and participating, unwillingly, in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, which

…establishes a new form of power in which contract and the rule of law are supplanted by the rewards and punishments of a new kind of invisible hand…

In this new regime, a global architecture of computer mediation turns the electronic text of the bounded organization into an intelligent world-spanning organism that I call Big Other. New possibilities of subjugation are produced as this innovative institutional logic thrives on unexpected and illegible mechanisms of extraction and control that exile persons from their own behavior.

And yet, scary as it is, the Big Other is limited by two things.

One is the paradox Don Marti isolates in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful: “The more targetable that an ad medium is, the less it’s worth…For targeted advertising, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If it fails, it’s a waste of time. If it works, it’s worse, a violation of the Internet/brain barrier.”

The other is the belief by most members of the Big Other that we are nothing but consumers, and that all we want to do, all the time, is buy something.

For example, I just looked up Mt. Pisgah in North Carolina on In “search nearby” (which Google volunteers as a default search choice, along with a picture of a pizza), Google’s search algorithm assumes that I’m looking, by default, for hotels and restaurants. But what if I’m looking for hiking or biking trails, or something else that costs no money? No luck. Google instead gives me a hotel, a lake and another wilderness area. In fact Google has no idea why I wanted to look up that mountain. (In fact it was to illustrate this point, for this essay. Nothing more.)

I just went back through the last seven days of my browser usage on Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera, to see if there is anything with a hint about anything I might want to buy. Out of many hundreds of pages I’ve visited, there is a single hint: a search I did for a replacement remote control for my sister’s Sansei TV. (I didn’t buy it, but I did email her a link.)

Even Amazon, which deals with us almost entirely when we are in shopping mode, constantly promotes stuff to us that we looked for or bought once and will never buy again. (For years after my grandson had moved past his obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine, Amazon pushed Thomas-like merchandise at me.)

Worse, Amazon constantly mixes wheat and chaff banner ads, so you don’t know whether what you’re seeing is there because Amazon knows you, or because it’s blasting the same promo at everybody.

This has been the case lately with Amazon’s “Home Essentials” banner, “presented by Pure Wow.” If you click on the Pure Wow logo, you get sent to a page that identifies the company as “a women’s lifestyle brand dedicated to finding unique ways to elevate your everyday.” Is Pure Wow a division of Amazon? Is it a company that paid Amazon to place the ad as a branding exercise? Does Amazon think I’m a woman? WTF is actually going on?

Fortunately, it’s possible to tell, by looking at Amazon through a browser uncontaminated by cookies or spyware. (In my case that’s Opera.) This is how I determined that Pure Wow is a simple brand ad, blasted at a population. In other words, wheat. But the fact that it’s hard to tell is itself a huge problem, for Amazon and Pure Wow as well as for the rest of us.

Because marketing is now so totally data-driven, and it is possible for marketing machinery to snarf up personal data constantly and promote at people in real time, the whole business has become obsessed with sales, rather than the rest of what marketing used to be all about. (As taught, for example, by Theodore Levitt and Peter Drucker.)

Nearly the entire commercial Web — the part that’s funded by tracking-based advertising — is so high from smoking its own exhaust that it actually believes that we are buying stuff all the damn time.

These intoxicated marketers completely miss the fact that 100% of the time we are dealing with stuff we’ve already bought, and often need serviced. (Like my sister with the lost remote control.)

Thus we have the strange irony of marketing talking about “brand value,” “loyalty,” and “conversation” while doing almost nothing to serve actual customers who need real help, besides answering complaint tweets and routing inquiries to robots and call centers (which are increasingly the same thing).

My point here is that giant companies — the Big Other — really think homo sapiens is homo consumerus, which is a category error of the first water.

Worse, it’s an illusion. Getting would-be oppressors to assume we are doing nothing but buying stuff all the time is one of the all-time-great examples of misdirection.

And think about what happens when personalized advertising works — for example, when it serves up an ad we can actually use. The actual value of that ad is still compromised by the creepy suspicion that we’re seeing it because we’re being followed, without permission, using who-knows-what, all of it stuck like leeches to our virtual flesh by parties that may not be Google or others who want to point us to the nearest pizza joint when we just want to know what exit to take.

Kapersky Labs calls the who-knows-what “adware.” Specifically, adware is the payload of cookies, programs and other code inserted into your browser, your computer and your mobile device, mostly without your knowledge or permission. The industry and its associations (such as the IAB and the DAA) say adware is all about giving you a better “advertising experience” or whatever. But to the Kaperskys of the world, adware is an attack vector for spreaders of malware and other bad actors — especially those looking to siphon money off an easily gamed system, often by planting hard-to-find bots and other malicious files inside your gear. Kapersky’s 2014 report, for example, is full of arcana that’s hard for civilians to understand, but is worth reading just to get an idea of how very bad this problem is for everybody. Here’s a sample:

Almost half of our TOP 20 programs, including the one in first place, were occupied by AdWare programs. As a rule, these malicious programs arrive on users’ computers alongside legitimate programs if they are downloaded from a software store rather than from the official website of the developer. These legitimate programs might become a carrier for the AdWare-module: once installed on the user’s computer it can add advertising links to browser bookmarks, change the default search engine, add contextual advertising, etc.

Here is one example of one piece of malware at work:

The verdict is also connected to advertising and all sorts of “potentially unwanted” activities. This is how scripts placed on Amazon Cloudfront to redirect users to pages with advertising content are detected. Links to these scripts are inserted by adware and various extensions for browsers, mainly on users’ search pages. The scripts can also redirect users to malicious pages containing recommendations to update Adobe Flash and Java – a popular method of spreading malware.

No wonder security expert T.Rob Wyatt says Online advertising is the new digital cancer. He explains,

I often refer to AdTech as the Research & Development arm of organized cybercrime. The criminals no longer have to spend money inventing new ways of penetrating the mobile device or PC since they can purchase a highly targeted ad for mere pennies instead. Thanks to very effective personalization capabilities delivered by ad networks, the cybercriminals can slice and dice their content and tailor the malware for specific audiences.

There are many ways to personalize content.  For instance, do you ever wonder why we so much email spam is obvious? Spam is often riddled with misspellings, bad grammar, and other glaring clues as to its malicious intent. We think “those must be some really dumb spammers” as we click delete.  Who would fall for that, right?  Actually, that is intentional. People who are so eager for the promised product that they are willing to overlook those obvious clues are self-selecting as the most gullible targets, and therefore the most lucrative. Malvertising relies on a similar filtering mechanism: Anyone NOT using ad blockers is self-selecting into the cybercriminal’s target pool.

There are many names for digital advertising’s chaff. “Interest-based advertising” is the Ad Choices conceit. Inside the business, “adtech” and “programmatic” are two common terms. Kapersky uses “adware.” Don uses “targeted.” I like “tracking-” or “surveillance-based.”

The original name, however, before it began to be called advertising, was direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail.

Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven.

Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.

And yes, a lot of brand advertising was annoying, and always will be. But at least we knew it paid for the TV programs we watched and the publications we read.

So now is the time to separate advertising’s wheat from its chaff, in the place where it’s easiest to do, and where it counts most: in our own browsers, apps and devices. It’s much easier to defeat the problem ourselves than by appealing to policy-makers and the industrial giants that rule the commercial Web. And we’re already part way there, thanks to friendly makers of browsers, extensions and add-ons that are already on the case.


An easy solution


All we need is a way to see what’s wheat and what’s chaff, and to separate them as we harvest content off the Web.

In agriculture this is done with a threshing machine. On the Web, so far, it’s done with ad and tracking blockers. All we need to do next is adjust our browsers and/or blockers to allow through the wheat. (Or to continue blocking everything, if that’s our preference. But I think most of us can agree that encouraging wheat production is a good thing.)

For that we need to do just two things:

  1. Label the wheat on the supply side, and
  2. Be able to pass through wheat on the demand side.

This can be done with UI symbols, and with server- and browser-based code.

By now it is beyond obvious that the chaff side of the chaff-obsessed advertising business won’t label its ads except with fatuous nonsense like the Ad Choices button. They can’t help us here.

Nor can attacking problems other than tracking. Not yet, anyway.

This is why well-meaning efforts such as AdBlock Plus‘s Acceptable Ads Manifesto can’t help. While everything the Manifesto addresses (ads that are annoying, disruptive, non-transparent, rude, inappropriate and so on) are real problems, they are beside the point.

As T.Rob puts it in Vendor Entitlement Run Amok, “My main issue with vendors turning us into instrumented data sources isn’t the data so much as the lack of consent.”

If we consent to wheat and block the chaff we solve a world of problems. Simple as that.

And we’re the only ones who can do it.

In her Black Hat 2015 keynote, Stisa Granick says,

Now when I say that the Internet is headed for corporate control, it may sound like I’m blaming corporations. When I say that the Internet is becoming more closed because governments are policing the network, it may sound like I’m blaming the police. I am. But I’m also blaming you. And me. Because the things that people want are helping drive increased centralization, regulation and globalization.

So let’s not just blame ourselves. Let’s fix the problem ourselves too, by working with the browser and ad and tracking blockers to create simple means for labeling the wheat and restricting our advertising diet to it.

And believe me, there are still plenty of creative people left on the old wheat-side advertising business — on Madison Avenue, and in the halls of AdAge and MediaPost — to rally around the idea of labeling the good stuff and letting the bad stuff slide.

By harvesting wheat and threshing out chaff, we also encourage good advertising and re-align it with good editorial (a word I prefer to “content,” which always sounds like packing material to me). We may not like all the ads we see, but at least we’ll know they have real value — to the sites we read, the broadcasts and podcasts we watch and listen to, and to the ad-supported services we depend on.

Then, for those of us who want or welcome certain kinds of tracking, we can also create useful flags for those as well, and consent that’s worthy of the noun.

But let’s start where we can do the most good with the least effort: by threshing apart advertising’s wheat and chaff.

Bonus links:

guy-in-a-shrink-wrapIn a provocative OuiShareFest talk titled You Are the Product, Aral Balkan says this:

I think we are at the point where we have to ask ourselves the very uncomfortable question: What do we call the business of selling everything else about you, that makes you who you are, apart from your physical body? And why, if this is our business, is it not regulated?

While I think regulations too often protect yesterday from last Thursday, I’m in sympathy with Aral on this one. While I’ve been working for years on simple means to signal, for example, whether or not we wish to be tracked when we leave a website, I’m not sure those signals will be respected unless backed by the force of law.

But my mind is open about it.

So there are two questions on the floor here.

  1. What do we call the unwanted harvesting of personal data (our digital body parts) online?
  2. What policies, if any, would we recommend to back the expressed wishes of people not to be followed when they are online?

Thanks in advance.

« Older entries