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reader-publisher-advertiser-safeadsTake a look at any ad, for anything, online.

Do you know whether or not it’s meant for you personally — meaning that you’ve been tracked somehow, and that tracking has been used to aim the ad at you? Chances are you don’t, and that’s a problem.

Sometimes the tracking is obvious, especially with retargeted ads. (Those are the shoes or hats or fishing poles that follow you to sites B, C and D after you looked at something like them at site A.) But most of the time it’s not.

Being followed around the Web is not among the things most of us want when we visit a website. Nor is it what we expect from most advertising.

Yet much of today’s advertising online comes with privacy-invading tracking files that slows page loads, drives up data use on our mobile devices and sometimes carries a bonus payload of malware.

So we block ads — in droves so large that ad blocking now comprises the largest boycott of anything in human history.

Reduced to a hashtag, what we say with our ad blockers is #NoAds. But even AdBlock Plus (the top ad blocker and the most popular* add-on overall), whitelists what its community calls “acceptable ads” by default.

So there is some market acceptance, if not demand, for some advertising. Specifically, Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto whitelists ads that:

  1. are not annoying.
  2. do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
  3. are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. are effective without shouting at us.
  5. are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Those are all fine, but none of them yet draws a line between what you, or anybody, knows is safe, and what isn’t.

In Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, I draw that line between ads aimed at populations and ads aimed at you (because you’re being tracked). Here’s one way of illustrating the difference:


As Don Marti puts it in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, #SafeAds carry a signal that personally targeted ads do not. For one thing, they don’t carry the burden of requiring that every ad perform in some way, preferably with an action by you. He explains,

Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explained the signaling logic behind advertising in a 1984 paper.

When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered. In order for advertising to be an effective signal, high-quality firms must be able to recover advertising costs while low-quality firms cannot.

Kevin Simler writes, in Ads Don’t Work that Way,

Knowing (or sensing) how much money a company has thrown down for an ad campaign helps consumers distinguish between big, stable companies and smaller, struggling ones, or between products with a lot of internal support (from their parent companies) and products without such support. And this, in turn, gives the consumer confidence that the product is likely to be around for a while and to be well-supported. This is critical for complex products like software, electronics, and cars, which require ongoing support and maintenance, as well as for anything that requires a big ecosystem (e.g. Xbox).

In my wheat & chaff post, I said,

Let’s fix the problem ourselves, 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.

So this is my concrete suggestion: label every ad not aimed by tracking with the hashtag “#SafeAd.”

It shouldn’t be hard. The adtech industry has AdChoices, a complicated program that supposedly puts you “in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Credit where due: at least it shows that advertisers are willing to label their ads. A #SafeAd hashtag (and/or some simple code that speaks to ad and tracking blockers) would do the same thing, with less overhead, with a nice clear signal that users can appreciate.

#SafeAds is the only trail I know beyond the pure-prophylaxis #NoAds signal that ad blocking sends to publishers and advertisers today. So let’s blaze it.

* That’s for Firefox. I can’t find an equivalent list for other browsers. Help with that is welcome.

no-ads-trackingHere is a list of pieces I’ve written on what has come to be known as the “adblock wars.” That term applies most to #18 (written August of this year) and beyond. But the whole series works as a coherent series.

  1. Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble (31 October 2008)
  2. After the advertising bubble bursts (23 March 2009)
  3. The Data Bubble (31 July 2010)
  4. The Data Bubble II (30 October 2010)
  5. A sense of bewronging (2 April 2011)
  6. For personal data, use value beats sale value (13 February 2012)
  7. Stop making cows. Quit being calves. (21 February 2012)
  8. An olive branch to advertising (12 September 2012, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  9. What could/should advertising look like in 2020, and what do we need to do now for this future? (Wharton’s Future of Advertising project, 13 November 2012)
  10. Earth to Mozilla: Come back home (12 April 2014)
  11. Why to avoid advertising as a business model (25 June 2014, re-running Open Letter to Meg Whitman, which ran on 15 October 2000 in my old blog)
  12. Time for digital emancipation (27 July 2014)
  13. Privacy is personal (2 July 2014 in Linux Journal)
  14. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  15. Thoughts on tracking based advertising (18 February 2015)
  16. Because freedom matters (26 March 2015)
  17. On taking personalized ads personally (27 March 2015)
  18. Captivity rules (29 March 2015)
  19. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015)
  20. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  21. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  22. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  23. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  24. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  25. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  26. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  27. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)
  28. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October on the ProjectVRM blog)
  29. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  30. How Will the Big Data Craze Play Out (1 November 2015 in Linux Journal)
  31. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)

There are others, but those will do for now.

Question: Should this whole thing be a book?

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 some-publisher.com, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. And when I go to seller.com, 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 http://wsj.com/wtk. 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


This is the fifth installment in The Adblock War Series. Here are the first four:

  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

(As of 12 October, the number is up to ten.)

In this post I respond in detail to assertions made in a pair of pro-adtech pieces: Advertiser’s Mandate In The Age Of Ad Blocking: Blend In, by Pat LaPointe in MediaPost; and Welcome to hell: Apple vs Google vs Facebook and the slow death of the web, by Nilay Patel in The Verge.

First, Pat LaPointe—

Consumers are increasingly constructing their own digital “content cocoons.”

“Cocoon” is a vivid metaphor, and makes sense from the adtech point of view. It also doesn’t position self-protecting people and their tech as enemies that need to be fought, which is good. But it’s not what people think they are doing when they control their lives, online or off. So let’s be clear here. People only want two things when they block ads and tracking:

  1. Freedom from annoyance, and
  2. Privacy.

In the physical world they get those from the technologies we call clothing and shelter. There are no equivalents yet online. But ad and tracking blocking point in a civilized direction. More about this under the next item.

From their Facebook network to apps for their favorite stores, consumers exert more control over the content and messages they are exposed to than any time in history.

First, we aren’t just “consumers,” which Jerry Michalski calls “gullets with wallets and eyeballs.” Nearly everything that makes us human is not reducible to an appetite for “content.” And our gullets (which yes, we do have) are gagging on advertising we already hated and are being forced by adtech to hate even more.

Second, people don’t exert control over content and messages with their “Facebook network” (whatever that is) or their “favorite stores” (which, even if they have them, are little more than one app among many on their phones). They exert control with technologies that are theirs, even if they only rent them — and that control is indeed increasing. Here’s how:

In the physical world we exert control our ourselves and our interactions with others through many technologies for both selective disclosure (clothing, shelter) and engagement (wallets, purses, cars).

In the online world the equivalent to these are browsers, email clients, computers, mobile devices and the apps that run on them. The fact that all those things are infected with spyware and controlled to a high degree by giant companies (notably Apple and Google) does not mean they are not under personal control. It means they are compromised. This is why people want to cure the infections in their mobile devices and increase their control.

What we want most as free and independent human beings is agency: the ability to act with full effect. We know what this feels like in the physical world, and we are learning what this feels like in the virtual one, starting with ad and tracking blocking, which adds a higher degree of privacy to our browsers . (Apple is also on this case as well, by the way. Read more here.)

Now consumers are curating their advertising experiences, as well with ad blocking.

“Curating” is a strange word for what ad blocking does, which is actually prophylaxis.

As a result, there is a battle between advertisers that try desperately to get their message in front of the right consumers, and the consumers who work hard to not be exposed to things they’re not interested in.

That’s half-right. The battle is definitely going on, but what people are mostly not interested in — and hate at this point — are advertising and spying.

Apple will offer an ad blocker in its newest OS.

Actually, it’s called Content Blocking, and it’s only for supporting developments of apps that add selective forms of blocking to the Safari browser on iOS 9. Still, it’s one form of chemo for the cancer of adtech. (Bonus link on 18 September. Evidence of what I said here.)

Ad blocking will hardly kill advertising; it’s what drives the Internet.

Two errors here:

First, ad blocking doesn’t kill advertising. It does for advertising what bug repellent does for bugs.

Second, nothing “drives” the Net, which is an agreement among network operators about how data gets passed between end points. True, at this moment in time there are a lot of ad-supported sites on the Web, but those are neither the Net nor any more permanent than a mobile home park.

Yet, it is a growing threat to the way marketers have traditionally approached marketing – to push mass messages out through standard channels and hope that the right audience is exposed to enough to drive revenue.


The rise in ad blocking is a sign that advertisers need to re-engineer their dialogue with consumers to be a relevant part of consumers’ “content cocoons.”

Almost none of the dialogue between companies and customers is conducted within advertising, which has been engineered from the start as a one-way thing. Even direct response marketing, the direct ancestor of adtech, was never about “dialogue.” That job belonged to other corporate functions, especially sales and service.

Consumers Assume You Know What They Want.

No they don’t. They assume you know shit, want to spy on them, and tospam them with ads that are unwanted 100% of the time, irrelevant 99.x% of the time, and creepy the .x% of the time they’re on target.

Consumers have been leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs online for years — from searches and shopping info to social media comments to survey responses.

True. But that is not an invitation to spy on them, or to intrude into their lives with presumptuous and unwelcome messages.

I also suspect that much of what adtech sees as a crumb trail is really what they harvest by surveillance tech.

Many marketers have collected the information, but have done a less-than-stellar job of putting the picture together.

“Collected” makes it sound like marketers just follow people around the digital world, collecting leftover debris (which they do), rather than spying on them constantly with tracking files, beacons and other invasive tech that no person asked for and few welcome.

As for “less than stellar,” yeah.

With the rise of content cocoons, it is vital that marketers work to assemble better pictures of their consumers…

Do customers want marketers to have “better pictures” of them? Really? Most customers want the companies that serve them to have the information necessary for that service, but not much if anything more.

(An aside: most marketers are not involved in adtech and have a respectful regard for people and what they want out of relationships with the companies that serve them. I’m debating here with the breed of marketers whose main interest is tracking people and personalizing advertising for them, whether they like it or not.)

…or risk losing consumer contact completely.

This is delusional marketing vanity.

There are a zillion ways for a company to connect with customers, starting with sales and service people and systems. If marketing loses “contact” based on spying, it’s little if any loss (and mostly a relief) for the individuals being spied on, and possibly no loss at all for the company doing the marketing, given better ways to actually connect with customers.

As consumers exert more control over their digital experiences, they actually expect relevance, particularly on mobile.

No they don’t. At least not from advertising, which is irrelevant or off-base most of the time.

We also got along fine without advertising on phones from 1876 to 2008, and as we get more control over our mobile devices, expect advertising to be the first thing we’ll wipe off them.

This means doing more than simply retargeting shopping or search behaviors. As consumers continue to wield more control over their experiences, the imperative to meet their expectations rises considerably.

It is insane (meaning disconnected from reality) to assume that more than a small minority of people will want ads of any kind of their phones, much less more relevant ones.

Even Google Maps’ ads in the results of a search for “coffee shops” are rarely more helpful than the tiny red dots that mean “look at this one too.”

Consumers expect that marketers are up to date. (e.g. don’t market that shirt to me, I just bought it!)

No they don’t. They expect to see retargeted ads for what they just bought, up to months or years after they bought it. Unless they use an ad or tracking blocker.

Consumers expect that marketers know why they are behaving in a certain way. (e.g. I bought a Honda because it is reliable, not because it’s cool.)

No, they expect marketers to know nothing other than how to push crap at them constantly, based on scant, inaccurate, irrelevant and abundant data that’s harvested by unwelcome surveillance.

Consumers expect that marketers know who they are intrinsically. (e.g. I am interested in innovative and unique electronics, not deals on last-years’ models.

No, they expect marketers to want to know all kinds of crap about people, by every means possible, regardless of the manners (or even the legality) involved, and to assume what Nixon’s team of creeps (way back when) called “plausible deniability” when asked if they know a person’s actual identity.

How can marketers meet these demands?

Demands? Please.

By understanding what drives a consumer to create their content cocoon…

It’s simple. They want you to go away. Please. Go away.

…and blending in.

You mean camouflage? When hiding already isn’t working?

First, marketers need to take a more deliberate targeted approach.

Or maybe a less targeted one. See Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.

Ad blocking happens both because of irrelevant generic messages but also because of creepy or badly targeted messages.

No, it happens because millions of people don’t like being tracked and targeted — or any advertising at all.

Marketers that go the extra mile will find a few distinct audiences more likely to find the message relevant, and may decide to leave one or more groups out rather than risk alienating them.

Maybe. Good luck with that.

For this shift to happen, the metrics of success have to change from generating “impressions” to building “engagement” in the form of access, sharing, or exploration.

Actually, generated impressions have built brands from the beginning. Heard of Coke? McDonalds? Kodak? (Well, at least the branding worked.) The thing is, those impressions did not carry the burden of “engagement,” and that was their charm. They just impressed viewers, listeners and readers. Simple, and effective.

You want engagement? Try doing brand ads that are so good they go viral and the market talks to itself about them without additional help from marketing dweebs. Example: Volkswagen of America’s TV ads with the old ladies.

Marketers can look at how much consumers opt in, use apps, read email, shop, or how they search for key topics.

This is the sound of marketing smoking its own exhaust.

People don’t want to be looked at, unless they have a damn good reason to trust who or what is looking.

Next, marketers need to match their tempo to a consumer’s activity levels.

This tells me something is for sale. Being a curious type, I see Pat LaPointe is the Chief Growth Officer for Resonate, which “makes marketing more relevant by uncovering why people do what they do.” I’d rather stay covered, thank you. So would everybody else who would like to block whatever it is Resonate does to uncover them.

Consumers don’t care if email, advertising or mobile coupons came from three different divisions of a company, they see it as one brand conversation.

Wrong. If people have a real relationship with a company, they want it to be with sales or service. That’s it.

For example, I have a great relationship with the service department of East Coast Volkswagen in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. I’m on a first-name basis with the guys there, who know their shit and have earned my trust and affection by treating us honestly and well. I’ve also seen and received the dealership’s marketing materials, and couldn’t care less about them. What matters is who I get on the phone when I need them, and how I’m treated. That’s it, for approximately everybody who owns a car.

If companies took half of what they’re wasting on adtech and put it into service improvements, they would have better (and more real) conversations with customers, and earn genuine loyalty, rather than the coercive kind that comprises every “loyalty program.” (If you need a program to obtain loyalty, you’re not eligible for the real thing.)

Finally, marketers must treat each message as if it’s part of a consumer’s own curated online persona.

More smoked exhaust.

Who wants any company’s message to be part of their “curated online persona,” whatever that is?”

Marketers must improve their ability to interpret the breadcrumbs that consumers leave online to build the right picture of each consumer because the consequences of alienation are so much higher than before.

What’s causing that alienation? Hmm?

And how about giving us back the “crumbs” you’ve collected from us? Betcha we can do more with it than you can. (We did with computing, networking, and much else.)

Every layer of the cocoon makes it harder and more expensive for marketers to break-thru to engage the consumer.

It’s not a cocoon. It’s my house. Stay out of it.

Now Nilay Patel

So let’s talk about ad blocking.

Yes, let’s.

You might think the conversation about ad blocking is about the user experience of news, but what we’re really talking about is money and power in Silicon Valley. And titanic battles between large companies with lots of money and power tend to have a lot of collateral damage.

Pure misdirection. He’s saying, “Don’t look at what people are doing to control their experience of the Web. Look over here at what the big bad companies are doing. That’s what ad blocking is all about.”

And yeah, what big companies do is always interesting when one of them is starting a fight. (Which Apple in particular is doing.) But ad blocking is what a large and growing percentage of individual human beings are doing to repel intrusive files and a Niagara of ads. That’s a serious topic, and needs to be talked about. Which now we’re not.

Unfortunately, the ads pay for all that content…

A lot, but not all. There are plenty of publishers and broadcasters that get along fine without advertising. HBO, Netflix, Consumer Reports and this blog, for example.

…an uneasy compromise between the real cost of media production and the prices consumers are willing to pay…

Stop. The commercial Internet is just 20 years old (dating from the end of NSFNet, the last holdout against commercial traffic within the Internet). We’ve hardly begun to experiment with all the different ways things can be funded, and ways people can signal their willingness to pay. And as long as only the sell side can do the signaling, the best we’ll get from the buy side is crude means of saying “Nyah,” such as ad blocking.

…that has existed since the first human scratched the first antelope on a wall somewhere.

Hyperbole. Advertising by that name has only been around since the 19th Century. The term “brand” has only been around since the ’30s, when Madison Avenue first became advertising’s metonym. Direct response marketing, of which tracking-based adtech is a breed, is much younger, and descended from direct mail, first called “junk mail” in 1954.

Alas, direct response marketing, which is entirely data driven and wants to get personal at nearly all times, has body-snatched Madison Avenue and the rest of advertising, so distinctions between the creepy kind based on tracking and the non-creepy kind (which just wants to be seen or heard) is all but lost. (I expand on the difference in Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff.) Thus adblocking kills both rather than just the most objectionable kind.

Media has always compromised user experience for advertising…

If we had to stick with “always,” we wouldn’t have the Net. Why do things only the old way?

And speaking of the Net, here we have the first medium where individuals have serious power and control. And they are exerting it, finally, with ad and tracking blockers, which send a clear signal — one that media like The Verge should heed.

… that’s why magazine stories are abruptly continued on page 96, and why 30-minute sitcoms are really just 22 minutes long.

Those ads were (and still are) real ads, not adtech. Readers and viewers knew where they came from and what they were doing there. They also weren’t personal, or based on surveillance. On pubs such as The Verge, it’s not clear with any ad whether or not it’s based on tracking the reader. Or why, exactly, any ad is where it is, or what mechanisms placed it there. (In fact, it’s a good bet most ads on The Verge are based on surveillance, as we’ll see below.)

It’s essential to remember the differences between advertising online and off. Ari Rosenberg does a good job of that in Why Does Randall Rothenberg Still Have a Job?. A sample:

Ad blocking is not a universal media problem — it’s an online advertising problem. TV viewers give television ads a shot — just ask Geico, IBM and Direct TV. Moviegoers don’t sit outside a theater when ads are playing. Magazine readers don’t turn away from ads when they turn the page. Even radio ads get a listen. Ad blocking is an online advertising problem we created — and one we deserve.

A successful publishing formula has a pecking order. Consumer needs are paramount to those of the advertiser. When this relationship is constructed that way, consumers accept advertising as part of this arranged marriage. Instead, the IAB has promoted and supported ad policies that put advertisers on a pedestal and the needs of consumers in the servants’ quarters. Blocking ads is the consumer’s way of asking for a divorce.

Those are points @AdContrarian and @DMarti have been making for years. Good to see it coming from the inside of adtech. (I just wish Ari hadn’t wrapped his points inside a slam on IAB chief Randall Rothenberg. Randall has been in at least some degree of sympathy with what I’ve been saying here, for years, which is why he invited and paid me, twice, to give talks to IAB conferences. I didn’t pull any punches at either of them, but I also made no difference. Adtech is a mania, and you can’t talk a mania down. You just have to let it fail.)

Media companies put advertising in the path of your attention, and those interruptions are a valuable product.

To them. Not to us, except on rare occasions when we actually do click on them (which runs at fractions of 1% of the time).

Your attention is a valuable product.

Yes, to us. That’s why we care how we spend it. Clearly a lot of us would rather not spend it watching pages slowly load behind tracking files and ads based on that tracking.

Speaking of which, check out Les Orchard‘s The Verge’s web sucks. He begins,

So, I’ve been a big fan of The Verge, almost since day one. It’s a gorgeous site and the content is great.

They’ve done some amazing things with longform articles like “What’s the deal with translating Seinfeld” and “Max Headroom: the definitive history of the 1980s digital icon“, and the daily news output is high quality.

But, I have to say, reading Nilay Patel‘s “The Mobile Web Sucks” felt like getting pelted by rocks thrown from a bright, shiny glass house.

And then he uses dev tools to look into what The Verge loads into your browser every time you visit. Simply put, it’s a mountain of spyware. More about that below.

taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. Innovation tends to follow the money, after all!

Not always. The Net, the Web, email, Linux, Wikipedia and countless open source code bases (on which we all depend) have come to the world from geeks working for needs other than money.

The rest of Nilay’s piece does a good job of laying out the current and coming battles between Google, Apple, Facebook and others. But if he really wants to talk about ad blocking (as he says at the top of his piece), how about looking at reasons The Verge gives users for using them? For example, here is what Ghostery says loads along with Nilay’s story:

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 5.26.41 PM

Ghostery provides some means for throttling some of those trackers. So do other tools, such as the EFF‘s Privacy Badger. Here’s what happens to the same page on Firefox when I activate Privacy Badger:

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 5.15.26 PM

While Privacy Badger provides ways for me to valve the trackers sent to my browser by The Verge, it would take way more time than I have to figure out what trackers do what, and then play with the sliders until The Verge and I come to some kind of compromise.

Now here’s the main thing.

When we go to a Web page, we expect to see that page. That’s what the http protocol is for: a way to ask for a page. What we get from commercial sites like The Verge, however, is a bunch of other crap we didn’t ask for. Some of it is welcome, some of it isn’t and it’s damn hard to tell the difference.

The conversation we need to have is about what’s okay and what’s not okay. Ad and tracking blockers are giving us — the users (and in paying cases, the customers) — a crude and primitive way to say “Enough! That’s not okay!” And to start asserting some small degree of agency in a world where surveillance rules, and the individual has little control, other than to just walk away.

In Be the friction – Our Response to the New Lords of the Ring, Shoshana Zuboff gives us —

Zuboff’s three laws: First, that everything that can be automated will be automated. Second, that everything that can be informated will be informated. And most important to us now, the third law: In the absence of countervailing restrictions and sanctions, every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention.

Ad and tracking blocking are countervailing restrictions and sanctions — a friction supplied by the marketplace.

Marketers and publishers can learn from what we’re saying with these tools. Or they can continue to misdirect our attention to what the Big Boys are doing while lecturing us about how we’re “killing the Web” or whatever.

The problem isn’t ad blocking. It’s surveillance. That’s what the real fight is about.

Meanwhile, it’s a shame to see the Chinese wall between editorial and advertising in publications turn into a trench. That’s what we see here.

(Parts of this post appeared in my Liveblog, on Fri, Sep 11, 2015.)

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 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.

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 pageapple.com/privacy — 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.

In “Cool Influencers With Big Followings Get Picky About Their Endorsements,” Sydney Ember of the NY Times writes,

The more brands that use influencers for marketing campaigns on social platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, the less impact each influencer has. At the same time, many influencers, who once jumped at the opportunity to endorse brands, are being much more selective for fear of appearing to sell out.

In How the gig economy has turned bad analysts into vendor advocates, Horses for Sources writes,

The technology and services industry today is awash with individuals whose only professional activity is flitting from vendor conference to vendor conference, with the sole purpose of writing completely non-objective puff pieces praising their vendor hosts in exchange for money (or in the hope said vendors will pony up some dough in gratitude).

And in MediaPost‘s Influencers: When Are they a Bad Bet?, Erik Sass wisely writes,

Okay, let’s admit some basic facts: when you look at many influencers, there’s really not much to them.

So “influencer,” it appears, is a euphemism for sell-out. We’re talking about shills here.

What should a brand do with truly valuable customers? I see three choices:

  1. Pay the customer to shill for them. That seems to be the default in today’s marketing world.
  2. Reward the customer in some way, as airlines do with frequent flyer programs.
  3. Recruit the customer to get more involved with the company itself, helping to improve its products and services. In other words, use the customer as an influencer on the company, rather than on some target audience. Generate real value at the source.

I submit that #3 has far more value than #1, and can add enormous value to #2.

Think of three companies for which you are a committed customer. Then think about what value you can give to those companies as a veteran user and good source of intelligence and insight.

As examples, I’ll name three of my own:

I’m way past a million miles with United, and have been a “1K” (100k miles/year) passenger for years. Naturally, United is nice to me, as it tries to be with all frequent fliers. I have no complaints, and can think of much to praise. I’ve also done my best to be good to United as well (though not by shilling them). One small way is by tagging with “United,” “United Airlines” and “UAL” all the 10,000+ scenic photos I’ve taken out the windows of their airplanes.

But I would be glad to do more. For free. Like other frequent (and expert) fliers, I have plenty of ideas it would be good for United (or any airline) to hear, whether or not they implement them. But, aside from United’s feedback surveys, there is no easy or standard way to do that.

According to my personal account pages at MyGarmin.com, I own six Garmin GPS units and a map for one of them. In fact I’ve owned more than I see on both lists. (Some have been lost or stolen.) I’ve also loved every Garmin product I’ve ever used. My current fave is the little eTrex 20 GPS. That unit and earlier Legend and Vista models have yielded lots of useful data for me, including what’s visualized here on the company’s free BaseCamp map app:


Same goes for data remembered, somehow, by Garmin’s older RoadTrip app:


Note the differences. I’d love to combine and reconcile them somehow, but have no idea how to do that. I’d also like to see the next-generation eTrex bring back some of the virtues I enjoyed in the Legend and Vista (such as the rubbery back and the non-flimsy way the earlier models held a MicroSD card).

I’ve had a number of conversations, over the years, with Garmin call centers, and their agents have always been highly knowledgeable and helpful. But I’d love to have a better way to relate to Garmin than the means the company alone provides.

I actually have only one Apogee product: the Mic microphone. It’s handy, and vastly improves sound over the built-in mics in my laptop and mobile devices. I carry it with me everywhere. In fact, I like the Mic so much that I would be glad to buy some of the company’s other products. But I haven’t, because the legs of my Mic have all fallen off. (Each were held on by a tiny phillips-head screw that easily unscrews and disappears. Two of the legs are now held on by substitute screws and the third by a twist-tie.) I just opened a support ticket on Apogee’s support page, asking for replacement screws, and attempted unsuccessfully to wake up the Live Chat thing. We’ll see how it goes with the support ticket.

I have two points here.

One I’ve already made: good customers have far more value to add than their patronage alone.

The other is new to business: we need a standard and common way for any customer to contribute useful intelligence to any company they care about. This would unlock immeasurable value through improved products and services.

We can’t get there by working the company side alone. Even if every company in the world improves its customer service to the max, every company’s systems and improvements would still be as different as they are today.

We can only innovate here on the customer side.

It helps that there is nothing new about this. The entire Internet is an example of exactly the kind of innovation we’re talking about here. It gives every customer scale, and provides a common way for everybody to engage everybody else. Same goes for basic tools we use on the Net. For example, browsers and email. Browsers especially provide standard and common ways for individuals to engage Web sites and services.

What we’re talking about here is a breed of VRM: Vendor Relationship Management. But it’s one breed, not the whole thing. And it’s a new breed.

I think it needs a name, so we can classify development there. Got one? Lemme have it.

Meanwhile, here is one hypothetical example of an innovation in this space.





dsbabyI was born sixty-eight years ago today, in Jersey City‘s Christ Hospital, at around eleven in the morning. I would have been born earlier, but the hospital staff tied Mom’s legs together so I wouldn’t come out before the doctor showed up. You know Poe’s story, The Premature Burial? Mine was like that, only going the other way: a Postmature Birth. It wasn’t fun.

When they finally took the straps off Mom, I was already there, face-first, with my head bent back so far that, when the doctor yanked me out with a forceps, the back of my C5 vertebra was flattened. The bruise that rose on the back of my neck was nearly the size of my head.

Mom wasn’t happy either, but you didn’t complain in those days. Whatever the shitty new status quo was, it beat the hell out of the Depression and the War. And, to be fair, the postwar Baby Boom was also at high ebb, stripping the gears of all kinds of systems: medicine, government, transport, education, whatever.

So we built a new postwar industrial system, and watched it all happen on TV.

All my life I’ve watched that system closely and looked for ways to have fun with it, to break it, and to fix it. I didn’t realize at first that fixing it was what I was here for, but eventually it dawned on me.

Specifically, it happened at Esther Dyson’s PC Forum, in March 1994. John Gage showed off the World Wide Web, projecting Mosaic (the Ur graphical browser) from a flaky Macintosh Duo. I already knew about the Web, but seeing it at work, all over the world, blew my mind and changed my life.

What I saw in the future were near-infinite computing and communications powers on our laps and in our pockets, projecting our very lives into a second digital world that would coexist with our physical one. In this second world we would all be a functional distance apart of zero, at a cost that leaned toward the same. The digital genie had been loosed from the physical bottle, and both would rule our species henceforth.

The question What am I doing here? — which had haunted me all my life, now had an answer. I had to help the world make the most of its new situation. “Your choice is always to help or to hurt,” Mom used to say. I wanted to help.

That’s why I started writing for Linux Journal in 1996, involving myself in the free software and open source movements. It’s why I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999. And it’s why I started ProjectVRM in 2006.

The simple idea with VRM (vendor relationship management) is to fix business from the customer side, by providing tools that make each of us both independent of businesses yet better able to engage with them. The mass market industrial model is to give businesses “scale”: the ability deliver the same products and services to countless customers. In the VRM model, the customer gets scale too, across all the businesses she deals with. (Imagine, for example, being able to change your address for every business you deal with, in one move, using a tool of your own. Or to set your own privacy boundaries, or terms of engagement.)

It’s a long-term ambition, and success may take longer than it does for me to complete my tour of the planet. But there are now lots of developers on the case, around the world.

I have absolute faith that fully empowered customers will prove good for business. Or, in other words, that free customers prove more valuable — to themselves and to business — than captive ones.

Making that happen is what I’m doing here. Sure, I do lots of other stuff too. But that’s the main thing.

Bonus link: The Final Demographic.

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