Will the GDPR spell the end of targeted advertising (and, by association, the commercial surveillance industry)? Eeeh… look. I’m dubious, but… one can only hope, I suppose.
How Google is impacting journalism though the fact it funds most online publications through ads, but also through being the biggest provider of hosted email and the maker of the most popular browser.
Very specifically, the article is about how Google’s arbitrary “no hate speech” rules impacted TMP’s reporting on white supremacist violence. Basically, TMP were censured for articles about Dylan Roof’s mass murder in Charleston, with the account rep they tried to contact apparently, “not really understanding the distinction and cheerily telling us to try to operate within the no hate speech rules.” It’s worth noting “censured” in this context means TMP couldn’t run advertising on the articles in question. Small in the scheme of things, maybe, but each warning of that nature goes against the account as a whole, with the net result that, after n-number of incidents (no one seems to know how many, exactly) Google could pull advertising entirely. Which would be disastrous for TMP. Existentially so.
The point here isn’t to criticize Google’s well-intentioned attempt to stop funding hate sites with ad revenue. It is to warn that Google has so much power, thanks to it advertising and big data ecosystems, that even small misjudgments in policy application can be catastrophic for downstream players. Which is, yanno. Pretty much literally everyone who isn’t Google.
Or, as the article points out:
One thing I’ve observed with Google over the years is that it is institutionally so used to its ‘customers’ actually being its products that when it gets into businesses where it actually has customers it really has little sense of how to deal with them.
(See also this.)
The big question: is Google’s ecosystem monopolistic and, if so, why doesn’t the government step in? Well, it’s been pointed out before the US antitrust laws are mostly geared to constantly lowering prices for consumers; they’re not actually designed to foster market competition, and they’re certainly not geared towards… however you’d describe the relationship Google has with its ad customers. Because Google’s services are (largely) “free”, in other words, US antitrust laws don’t apply.1
(To anyone who’s currently thinking, “They’re not ‘free’, the law is just bad at quantifying the value of the personal data Google extracts in exchange for its services.” Well… yes. That’s the point.)
Google isn’t the only one of the “new monopolies” poorly controlled by US law, of course–Amazon’s in the same boat, as is Facebook, for one–but it’s arguably the one with the most far-reaching impact for online services in general, and journalism in particular. Sadly, I don’t think there’ll be any kind of resolution to the issues any time soon, either. Hell, people are barely beginning to understand the problem. Or that there even is one to start with…
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Apparently online advertising lobbyists have their banners in a twist over Apple’s plans to introduce automatic tracker blocking in Safari.
Most current adware blocking and spyware obfuscation is user-directed. That is, if you don’t want your every move on the internet tracked, collated, and onsold by massive shady multinational surveillance companies, you need to both, a) know the problem exists in the first place, and b) know which in the massive ecosystem of imperfect-but-better-than-nothing anti-spyware products is trustworthy enough to use.1
So while companies like Google and Facebook–whose business models are spying and nothing else–wring their hands with weak and useless “initiatives” designed more to stave off the looming threat of government regulation than protect users, Apple (and, to give them credit, Microsoft) are more and more using “protecting privacy” as their market differentiators. This is why Apple, for example, added a “cop button” to Touch ID in response to that ridiculous US ruling about biometrics.2
And it’s why, one assumes, Apple continues to beef up its browser anti-spyware technology. Apple’s motto has always been “it just works”; that is, their products are intuitive for non-tech types. “It just works” when applied to browser anti-spyware means the browser’s default, unconfigured state should be to deny third-party tracking and micro-targeted advertising. If the latter really does provide the “better user experience” that ad lobbyists like to claim, then users missing their micro-segmented Russian propaganda [content warning for discussions of how Facebook’s advertising platform facilitates antisemitism] can opt-in by using a less privacy-focused browser.
… Yeah. I’m not holding my breath, either.
“But free content on the internet relies on ads!” cry the industry shills.
Well… yes and no. First of all, even when content relies on advertising, there’s no reason whatsoever that it has to rely on the hyper-targeted, micro-segmented, deeply personally intrusive style of advertising sold by platforms like Facebook. The sole reason this type of advertising exists is to give ad platforms an excuse to charge more and, thus, make more money. Keep in mind, I’m not just talking about, say, Google showing you ads for garden supply stores when you search for
how to fix ruptured garden hose. I’m talking about things like Facebook trying to sell you things based on its inference of your current mood. Removing that level of intrusiveness is not, let’s be completely clear about this, going to kill the internet.
Second of all, I am Internet Old and, as such, I absolutely remember a time before the internet decided “spying on everyone, all the time” was going to be its primary business model. Yes, things looked different–they were much more decentralized, for example, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–but, again, people managed. Just like they do now with things like non-ad-sourced micropayments and premium content subscriptions. Yes, monetizing in this way isn’t “easy” but–and maybe this is just me–that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Particularly when you consider the sort of content that’s profitable in ad-based attention economies…
In other words, bring on the blockers, I say.
Taking on crappy online ads, Apple-style.
This isn’t altruism, of course: Apple’s biggest rivals, i.e. Google, have almost all of their revenue from adtech, while Apple has more-or-less none. Coupled with the fact that users loathe ads, it means they’re a safe target for Apple to hit at.
I still use Chrome on iOS, because I like the syncing with the desktop and I like my desktop Chrome ad-ins. But mobile-based Chrome is getting worse (cough not supporting iOS’s adblockers cough), while Safari is getting better. As websites get more bloated with ad- and spyware, I’m already using Safari more and more for the simple fact that pages in Chrome become unusable. Google’s attempts to “fix” this–things like AMP and its own new “adblocking”–are more about gaining market share for Google than they are making things better for users.
I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I end up making the browser switch permanently…
Web ads are dramatically different from prior ad media, though — rather than just being printed on paper or inserted into a broadcast, web ads are software. They run arbitrary code on your computer, which can (and usually does) collect and send data about you and your behavior back to the advertisers and publishers. And there’s so much consolidation amongst ad networks and analytics providers that they can easily track your behavior across multiple sites, building a creepily accurate and deep profile of your personal information and private business.
All of that tracking and data collection is done without your knowledge, and — critically — without your consent. Because of how the web and web browsers work, the involuntary data collection starts if you simply follow a link. There’s no opportunity for disclosure, negotiation, or reconsideration. By following any link, you unwittingly opt into whatever the target site, and any number of embedded scripts from other sites and tracking networks, wants to collect, track, analyze, and sell about you.
Marco Arment on web ads.
I’ve mentioned this before and it bears repeating: the only reason this model of surveillance-as-advertising works is because the US has fucked-up data privacy laws.
Firstly, in the US, companies own user data. In most other developed nations, the individual retains ownership of data about themselves, even when those data are held by a third party (e.g. a website).
And secondly, in the US, companies that “own” user data may use that user data however they see fit (with a few very small exceptions), including selling it to third parties. Again, in most other places, companies can only use data for the express purpose for which they were collected, unless they obtain explicit consent from the individuals whom the data describes.
To say that the internet would be a very different place if the US had proper data privacy laws (i.e. ones that hadn’t been fucked up by corporate lobbying) is… something of an understatement.
Back in the early days of the web, the Guardian ran a brilliant ad which asked “Ever wondered how every day there’s just enough news to fit in the newspaper?” It was advertising the Guardian website, and the fact there was more there than you’d find in the paper.
Now? There are a gazillion websites – but tons of them are simple copies, monetised by adverts from Google or whoever, which leach from the originating sites by copying their content. We’ve now established the limits of how much news is generated each day: it’s more than fits in newspapers, but less than fits on all the websites currently dedicated to “news”.
Charles Arthur on volume.
The whole post, which is kind of old now (I’m still going through my backlog of links… from 2015), is mainly talking about tracking and advertising online.
Incidentally, as an aside, one of the things I almost never see mentioned in any lament on the rise and rise of online surveillance is the contribution from the parallel rise of HTTPS.
Yeah, you heard me.
Here’s the thing. Back in Ye Oldene Dayes of the internet, you didn’t need to follow everyone around the internet to find out where they were coming from to reach your site. You knew, because whenever they hit up one of your pages1 their browser used to send along a little thing saying where they visited from, a.k.a. the referrer.
The thing about HTTPS, is that one of the “privacy”2 features it offers is that it does not send the referrer when you move between pages. If you’ve run any kind of traditional tracking software on your website, e.g. Mint or Piwiki or Jetpack, and have done so for a while, you’ll notice that they get less and less useful data every year. Referrers from blogs? Gone. Social media? Forget about it. Even most URL shorteners work by obfuscating the true source, meaning you might know someone came to your site from Twitter (t.co), but to find the actual originating Tweet you’re going to need to do a manual search or scrape and API.
See, back in Ye Oldene Dayes, individual webmasters used to be able to assemble reasonably good profiles of their website’s users; who was linking them, who were the repeat visitors, and so on. It went both ways, too; bloggers and website owners got to know each other and built their communities around the referrer log. Nowadays, if you want that information? You’re going to have to buy it from one of the Internet Surveillance Megacorps (and it’ll cost you). In other words, the web has moved from “small town/nosy neighbor surveillance” to the capitalist Big Brother variety. Various social media sites will pretend to give some of this community back to their users–think things like Tumblr reblogs–with the key emphasis being on keeping the community on their platform (and, thus, marketable to their advertisers).
Ranting about things like this is one of the hallmarks that makes me old, I know.