Digital Life

This Week’s Topic: Go Forth And Block Ads

Faded ad on wall
"Fading Odors" by Professor Bop on flickr, 2010 (CC-BY-NC-ND)
Solana Larsen
Written by Solana Larsen

Web We Want’s newsletter highlights one important topic every week and tells you what you need to know in 3 minutes or less.


What’s Going On?

Around 200 million people have downloaded ad-blocking software on their computers and phones, and publishers and ad-agencies are furious. ‘How can there be free content on the Web if people refuse to see the ads?’ they say. But there are overriding concerns.

Some ads that appear automatically through programmatic sales pose a security risk even on reputable websites. Even if you don’t click on anything, malicious code in ads that look normal (“malvertising”) can make your computer download software that locates bank details or installs ransomware that holds your computer hostage until you pay.

Without an ad blocker, your privacy and computer security are at risk.
More often, ads are simply annoying or “creepy” in how they target you personally, because your browser, search engines — and the ads themselves — track your online activity.

Tracking is so untransparent, special tools have been developed to reverse engineer the process, like OpenWPM, XRay, and LightBeam. This is how we know that searching for “cancer” or emailing a friend about debt, opens the door for marketers to take advantage of people by showing ads for fake remedies or offering higher interest rates on loans.

So what choice do you have? You won’t find satisfactory answers in existing regulations or global ad industry practices. Meanwhile, billions of dollars exchange hands every year, and the businesses that lagged on implementing better security still have the upper hand.

Who’s Doing Something?

The very popular Adblock Plus software (more than 500 million downloads) doesn’t actually block all ads, but encourages users to view “acceptable ads” as a default. Adblock Plus maintain a whitelist of publishers that the biggest media sites must pay to be added to.

Rejecting that business model as a kind of “shakedown”, a new startup called Brave is developing an open-source Web browser that would block ads that track and replace them with their own non-intrusive ads, splitting revenue with publishers and even Web users themselves.

Several U.S. and European newspapers (and even Yahoo Mail for some users) now ban people with ad blockers from viewing their sites unless they pay. A more diplomatic approach by The Guardian in the U.K. displays a message asking readers with ad blockers to consider paying.

Despite blaming ad blockers for huge financial losses and shunning Adblock Plus from industry events, the influential Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) in the U.S. now admits that the meteoric rise in ad blocking has been a wakeup call for how badly the ad industry behaved so far, and what needs to change to make ads better.

What Should I Do?

Read and consider signing the Acceptable Ads Manifesto.

Download a trusted ad blocker for both your computer and mobile phone, like Ghostery or Adblock Plus.

Download browser add-ons like Privacy Badger from EFF or Disconnect.Me to see who’s tracking you and block their “cookies”.

If you have a Google account or use Gmail, perform a Privacy Checkup to review your ad settings and decide what may be tracked.

Always keep your operating systems updated. Remember unprompted links for security software are typical ruses for malware.

About the author

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen is co-author of the cookbook "Recipes for a Digital Revolution". She writes a newsletter for Web We Want and helped create this website. Formerly, she was the managing editor of Global Voices Online. Solana is a Danish-Puerto Rican journalist and digital activist.

2 Comments

  • I cut this out of the piece for length, but automated ads are also used to defraud companies of billions of advertising dollars thanks to gigantic amounts of fake traffic sold to profiteering publishers. I was shocked to learn that around 60% of recorded traffic on the Internet may be computer-generated. Boo!

    http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2015-click-fraud/
    http://digiday.com/publishers/confessions-bot-traffic-buyer/
    http://fortune.com/2015/07/01/online-advertising-fraud/

  • This is a good start but it only scratches the surface.

    For those who like to be more thorough I suggest looking at:
    1) Ways to examine all the things that call home from your computer, look regularly enough to get a good idea. You may find that your browser is a Trojan horse, if you look at it using “Fiddler”. Ghostery gives a good regular reminder that they want to watch you all of the time.
    2) If you use Windows 10, you can shut down the telemetry that invades your privacy. (Research online.)
    3) Adjust your browser use and settings, and check regularly. The default settings tend, nowadays, to be hostile and intended for an “idiot consumer”. If these guys give you “free stuff” they are often your enemy.
    4) Log out of your social network etc. every time you leave it.

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