Doubleclick + Adblock = I’m a Moral Monster?

practiceadblockI’m back to Linux after spending time in Windows to work on my thesis (it’s in the .docx format that I railed about previously, before I knew much about the format and, because of the importance of the document, I’m loathe to transfer it to another format), which means that I have access to all of the links that I’ve been gradually storehousing over the past few months. I have a lot to talk about, but one of the most pressing surrounds ‘moral’ arguments directed towards blocking online ads.

The Background

If you use the Mozilla Firefox web browser, then you have access to some of the most potent ad-blocking software that is currently available to you. If you install the Adblock Plus extension, easily 98% of the ads that you’d normally see online go away – it’s wonderful. You can hit up websites, get content, and not be distracted by ads.

In related news, Google Corporation recently bought Doubleclick. Doubleclick is a massive online advertising company, one that buys ‘banner spaces’ and sells them to interested parties. Doubleclick logs the IP addresses (the number associated with your computer’s online activities) when you click an ad. Google is currently facing a barrage of challenges from the EU in light of their purchase because their internal database, combined with Doubleclick’s, will allow Google to effectively target discrete individuals because of the substantial digital dossiers they will be able to covertly collect.

The Morals

Ok, so you’ve got enough information that you can piece together the title – someone is saying that blocking ads is amoral. Along those lines, that would mean that it would be morally wrong for you to implement technological countermeasures to prevent being assaulted with ads that are (often) contextually developed. The ads you commonly see are shown based on your past Internet activity and/or your geographical location. If you block ads, you’re being bad – so bad that you’re hurting Google. Since Google’s motto is ‘don’t be evil’, your subversion of them (along with the apparent immorality of blocking ads) reveals you as a moral monster.

Let’s get into this a bit more.

The basic premise behind my moral monstrosity is that I’m taking things without giving back. Whereas TV broadcasters have fixed resources, websites have to pay for the content that is being served up to me. The bandwidth, writers, and other resources that I’m draining by viewing their site (devoid of ads because of my technological countermeasure) is equivocated to theft. Chris Soghoian over at CNET.com has a blog entry on this that is entitled ‘Who blocks the (ad) blockers?‘. While you can read the post (and, really, should rather than just taking my word for things) his argument is boiled down into what he writes (and I’ve quoted) below::

Users of advertisement-skipping technology are essentially engaged in theft of resources. Web site owners have not, yet, wrapped their Web sites in shrinkwrap contracts, and so while the ad-skipping may be immoral, it certainly isn’t illegal. Web site owners are perfectly within their rights to utilize any and all browser/extension/Web behavior detection technologies in order to blacklist the ad blockers. Similarly, creative users are more than within their rights to evade whatever detection technology the Web site designers use.

The real question to be answered is: will other Web site owners wish to get themselves into an arms race that they almost certainly cannot win?

It’s All About Distinctions

It’s nice that he differentiates between morality and legality (and is actually a refreshing reminder of the fact that most people in Western nation-states live in secular environments), but I think that there is an assumption that people should be forced to subject themselves to advertising to receive content. I’m all for people getting paid for their work, but I think that applying ‘theft’ charges to adblockers reeks of poorly translating analogue behaviours into digital environments. I can’t deface an online ad – if I do, I’ve probably broken a half-dozen laws in hacking the ad. There is no real way for me apply culture-jamming techniques – I can’t make a mockery of the ad for others to see in the space the ad is seen. As a (relatively) isolated market agent I have no ability to engage in contract negotiations with the party displaying the ad or protest its presence – I can’t really do anything about it. Since pretty well all content sites have ads, if I wanted to play the market logic game (i.e. If, as a rational economic actor, I have problems with ads I should just stop going to places that have ads) there isn’t a substantive way for me to avoid participating in the ad-culture.

Whereas I could advert my attention from some analogue ads – not read them or pay them much attention – I don’t have that option when the ad is dancing around in front of me, and I have to click a series of buttons to remove them from my screen. I have to actively engage with the ad for it to go away – I have to participate in marketing and the ad before it goes away. In these cases, ads are directly intruding on my reading experience and, in the process, impeding my ability to receive content from the site. Really, I tend to get infuriated when a dancing person, or a verbal ad, or ‘context’ ads that pop-up some ad when I accidentally mouse over a word eurupt on my screen. Sure, these kinds of ads might help content providers generate a bit of cash as hapless netizens accidentally activate the ads while trying to evade them, but that’s not going to leave a good taste in many consumers’ mouths. I’m more likely to return to sites if they have non-obtrusive ads, but individual content owners rarely control the type of ad – flashy ads get people’s attention, and so they’re the more common type of ad.

Copying? What’s That?

The Internet relies on copying information from one location to another. When I’m at a website, I can have a small ‘cookie’ placed on my computer that can be used to track and monitor my online actions. The information that is collected by these electronic ticks is subsequently added to corporate databases with your computer’s IP address and, over time, it becomes possible to develop an incredibly good digital profile for the users of that particular computer. This means that, as more and more data is added to the database, the advertising companies can get better and better at targeting you, a discrete individual. Essentially, your interests can be exploited for a market gain. You don’t consent to sharing or contributing that information information. Since the courts haven’t really dealt with some of their more expansive consequences, the ads are just getting better and better, and you’re being subjected to increasingly accurate advertisements that are/will become increasingly challenge to resist.

If, in addition to being a moral monster for blocking ads as they get better and better at sucking money out of me, it becomes illegal for me to do so (similar to how it is illegal to bypass various security technologies in the US and Germany) then I’m in a real bind. Do I go to content sites, subject myself to their data disclosures and ad targeting that is maximally designed to exploit my interests, or do I just turn off the ads to reduce the chances of succumbing to well-oiled corporate ad schemes?

Personally, I’m going to be stuck being both a criminal and monster, but at least I’ll be able to afford the lawyer to get my ass out of jail.

Christopher Parsons

I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Citizen Lab in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and a Principal at Block G Privacy and Security Consulting. My research interests focus on how privacy (particularly informational privacy, expressive privacy and accessibility privacy) is affected by digitally mediated surveillance and the normative implications that such surveillance has in (and on) contemporary Western political systems. I’m currently attending to a particular set of technologies that facilitate digitally mediated surveillance, including Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), behavioral advertising, and mobile device security. I try to think through how these technologies influence citizens in their decisions to openly express themselves or to engage in self-censoring behavior on a regular basis.