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Private I: Firefox and others deal with unwanted trackers, whether ads or malicious

Glenn Fleishman | July 10, 2015
You'd think checking a box labeled Do Not Track would indicate a strong preference for, you know: not being tracked. And yet that is not the case. Those who sell slots to advertisers or gather demographic and other personal data to associate with individuals and improve targeting have a desperate interest in following our every move online.

Even in its best form, there was a dispute in the ad industry over whether Do Not Track meant, "Put a marker that someone shouldn't be tracked" or "you can track them but you can't make use of the data in targeting ads to them." Evercookies and supercookies seem unethical, but may be perfectly legal. All legitimate networks offer some kind of opt-out method, but many work poorly, and you have to opt out often for every browser by network, and sometimes only for a limited period of time. And, as with the Do Not Track quibble, opting out of tracking can mean you're tracked with a promise to not use identifying information.

Because of all this, users have increasingly installed ad-blocking software, which throws the baby out with the filthy bathwater. Poor baby! The baby is the revenue from advertising that allows sites such as Macworld and hundreds of thousands--or maybe millions--of others to pay the bills that make publications go from a part-time self-employed blogging gig to a newsroom of hundreds of reporters. A recent report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism noted:

In the UK, 39 percent have installed ad-blocking software on their PC, mobile, or tablet, whereas in the US this rises to 47 percent. The figures are even higher for 18--24s (56 and 55 percent respectively).

I won't make a moral argument about the necessity of viewing ads when visiting a site that uses them for revenue. The business model of a site isn't the responsibility of its users, and the number of trackers that users shouldn't trust is so high that it's reasonable for people to install ad blockers as a way to get rid of good and bad alike.

To understand my sentiments, I was a co-plaintiff in a suit led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in support of ReplayTV back in 2002 about ad skipping and space shifting. Turner Broadcasting's CEO famously responded that year in an interview to this question about ad skipping, "What if you have to go to the bathroom or get up to get a Coke?" He replied, "I guess there's a certain amount of tolerance for going to the bathroom."

Likewise, I think it's absurd to say, "If you won't load [any or all] ads, you're stealing." It's an extreme position, especially when sites reference 10 or 20 or 30 tracking elements. About half my paychecks as a freelancer come from sites for which advertising is key, and the other half from sites for which subscriptions pay a good part or a large part of the bills. (Ads for subscriptions are ads, too, of course.) The rise of ad blockers will hurt some sites and services, but also lead to development of other kinds of reader revenue, including more paywalls.


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