A Not So Short List of People to Blame for Internet Content Woes
By now, you’re likely aware of the kerfuffle surrounding ad blockers for iOS. If not, here’s the short version. In iOS 9, Apple made it possible for developers to create content blockers that could prevent ads from appearing in Safari on the iPhone and iPad. So they did, and when I last looked, Purify Blocker was the top-selling paid app in the Productivity category — clearly people want the faster and less intrusive browsing experience provided by an ad blocker, and some developers aren’t above profiting from tools designed to hurt other businesses. Others have trouble with that — developer Marco Arment’s Peace ad blocker
became the top-selling iOS app overall briefly before he pulled it from sale several days later. The fuss even prompted the Interactive Advertising Bureau trade group to admit that the ads have gone too far.
In subsequent weeks, Internet ink has flowed fast and furious with debate about ad blockers — fast and private browsing is great, but most Internet publications rely on ad revenue. The backlash against ad blockers has already begun — in a high-profile response, German company Axel Springer announced that it is now blocking readers of its Bild tabloid Web site who use an ad blocker, asking them to whitelist the site or turn off the ad blocker so ads display, or pay €2.99 (US$3.37) per month to browse the site without ads.
If you’ve contemplated or installed an ad blocker out of disgust for how ads impact your Internet experience or because you dislike being tracked on principle, you’ve probably wondered who’s to blame for this mess. It’s easy to point fingers at grasping publishers and sleazy advertisers, but we need to look harder. I was pondering the question in the shower this morning, and when I got out, my reflection in the bathroom mirror made me realize just who the real culprit is: it’s me, you, and everyone else on the Internet.
That’s right, we’re all to blame. That’s because we’re a bunch of cheap bastards who aren’t willing to cough up a few bucks to pay for the news, magazine articles, blog posts, and even apps we so greedily consume. (Those of you who are TidBITS members, consider yourselves part of the solution, since you’re not only paying to support TidBITS, you’re also doing so voluntarily.)
But that’s too glib of an indictment — sure, given the choice between free and not-free, most people choose free most of the time, and what’s wrong with that? “Cheap bastard” is just a more engaging way of saying “rational economic actor.” When faced with two options of equivalent utility, why would you pay if you didn’t have to?
Without venturing too far into the weeds of history, how about if we blame the guy responsible for the concept of free-market capitalism — Adam Smith, he of the invisible hand? I’ve not read his “Wealth of Nations” (I’m a writer, Jim, not an economist!), but it seems to me that the very basis of a free market is that prices are set freely by consent between vendors and consumers, free from intervention by government, monopoly, or other authority. I’d argue that implicit in that is that various business models are acceptable, based as they are on different forms of consent (and in a situation where something is freely available, consent can be determined only by
Blaming Adam Smith is unsatisfying, though, since, among other problems, the dude died in 1790, and therefore knew nothing about Internet business models — he didn’t even overlap with Charles Babbage or Ada Lovelace, who were born in 1791 and 1815 respectively. It’s tempting to lay some blame at their feet too, along with Alan Turing, as pioneers of computing without whose work we wouldn’t have digital content that can be replicated ad infinitum without any loss of quality. But, you know, they’re all ex-parrots too.
Let’s jump forward to the 1830s, which saw the rise of the “penny press” — newspapers that sold for a penny each, rather than the six cents that was common at the time, democratizing journalism and making money through paid advertisements. Though they came late to the penny press game, and certainly weren’t the first to take ads, the next people on whom we can pin some blame are George Jones and Henry Raymond, who in 1851 founded The New York Daily Times, later to be renamed The New York Times.
Now we’re getting somewhere, since The New York Times has both covered the ad-blocking brouhaha and weighed in on the utility of ad blockers, all while serving ads that actively prevented designer and blogger Khoi Vinh (formerly Design Director for NYTimes.com) from reading the article about ad blocking. Ironic, no?
That’s not quite fair, though, since The New York Times tries hard to make people pay, allowing readers to view only ten free articles per month, and charging for online access at rates ranging from $3.75 to $8.75 per week, depending on whether you want to use a smartphone, a tablet, or both (and share with a family member). Tellingly, daily delivery of the physical paper costs only $8.90 per week.
So The New York Times is trying to charge mostly for its content — apparently all those dead trees and delivery trucks make up only 15 cents of the subscription price. That implies that the Internet itself is inextricably tied up in the whole mess — so how about we blame Al Gore, who never said he invented the Internet but may as well take some heat for the moment? But we can’t lay more than government funding for the pipes at Gore’s feet, so what do you say we point the finger at Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web? Not for creating it (thanks, Tim!) but for ignoring the intellectual efforts of Ted Nelson, whose Project Xanadu had a far more powerful concept of linking that incorporated two-way links, rights management with automatic usage royalties, and micropayments. Heck, let’s blame Ted Nelson too, for being too much of a visionary and too little of an implementer.
But they’re not responsible for the dominant Internet business model of giving content away for free and generating revenue entirely from ads. That can perhaps be laid at the feet of free, ad-supported newspapers, which date back to 1885. However, despite that early start, they didn’t really take off until recent times. A better scapegoat would be commercial radio, which got its start in the 1920s, and commercial television, which dates to the 1950s. Initially, both radio and TV used a single sponsor model before realizing that it would be easier to sell smaller blocks of advertising time to
multiple businesses. The sponsor model would come back to fund both the non-profit National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), founded in 1970. Blame them too, not in the least because that’s where Tonya and I took our inspiration when we began the first advertising program on the Internet in 1992 (see “TidBITS Sponsorship Program,” 20 July 1992). We can’t sidestep our blame for all this. Nor can Tim O’Reilly, whose Global Network
Navigator was the first Web publication to take clickable ads in 1993.
If I’m going to shoulder some blame here, I want to share it with a few billionaires. Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s Google took the concept of Internet advertising and ran with it, building a corporate behemoth based on the idea that you could make compelling Internet services available for free and generate revenues based on contextual, targeted advertising that attempts to display ads users might find useful.
While we’re on the topic of tracking, let’s blame the U.S. National Security Agency for taking something that’s potentially annoying and at minimum theoretically troubling (ad-based tracking) and turning it into something truly creepy (mass domestic surveillance by a government agency).
Over at Apple, Tim Cook and company have made hay from the fact that Apple doesn’t collect information about its users to target advertising better, and to prevent government agencies from acquiring it. That’s not to say Apple doesn’t want to advertise to you — iAd, anyone? — but the company’s business model is primarily based instead on the almost quaint principle of selling a product for money. However, Apple is far from blameless in the woes of Internet content, thanks to its role in creating the highly artificial App Store and iBooks Store markets — we can lay that at the feet of Steve Jobs. Thanks to Apple’s
refusal to allow demos and paid upgrades for apps, separation of developers from their users, and poor interface that makes price the primary differentiator of similar-sounding products, apps and books have been almost entirely devalued in the eyes of consumers. Parking meters are a larger expense for many people.
Of course, Apple was far from the first to devalue software. For that, we need look no further than Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, and Linus Torvalds, the driving force behind the Linux kernel that would later sit at the heart of numerous operating systems, most notably billions of copies of Google’s Android. To be fair, Stallman in particular feels software should be free as in speech, not free as in beer, but that’s a distinction lost on many.
The problem for the purposes of today’s discussion is that when software is free (as in beer), developers have to develop alternative business models, such as charging for tech support, hosting, ancillary services, or premium features. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but it encourages the same sort of behavior in other fields. Google, of course, but also look at Facebook, where Mark Zuckerberg and company have figured out how to monetize your relationships by selling ads alongside your personal communications.
What’s most annoying is that we’re not worth very much to any of these companies. Facebook’s average revenue per user (ARPU) is only about $10, about double Twitter’s $5 ARPU and far behind Google’s $45 ARPU. Heck, if it were an option, I wouldn’t even blink at paying $45 per year for all the great stuff Google provides me instead of seeing ads, and I’d happily hand over $15 per year for ad-free Facebook and Twitter combined.
But paying for the services we use, the content we consume, and the apps we install is quite literally a hard sell, despite all the negatives that come with business models that separate product from price. Speaking of which, let’s drag Jeff Bezos in for helping to devalue digital goods, starting with the way Amazon drove down the price of ebooks by selling them as loss leaders, and most recently with the new Amazon Underground app and service. Amazon Underground provides Android users with access to over $10,000 worth of apps, games, and in-app purchases for free, paying developers $0.0020 per
minute (two-tenths of a cent), which means a penny per five minutes, or 12 cents per hour. Amazon is presumably funding the service through increased sales of other products, but the entire thing brings to mind the old joke, “We lose money on every sale, but make it up on volume.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around for how we’ve ended up in a world where all our digital content is free and we’re used as raw material in increasingly troubling monetization schemes. Most recently, ad industry behavior is what brought this situation to a head, but if online ads weren’t so universally ignored, the industry might not have felt the need to stoop to tracking-based targeting. Or perhaps it would have; cable TV companies and movie theaters certainly aren’t shy about adding advertising even after we pay our cable bills and buy our movie tickets. And while individual advertisers are also at the heart of the problem, they’re just trying to tell us about their products and services — it’s hard enough to
introduce something new to the public with advertising; without advertising, it’s nearly impossible.
In the end, I’m going to return to where I started, and say that society as a whole is responsible. But the opportunity for change also lies with all of us, both in our everyday ways of choosing free services and support of broader policies. I see ad blockers as just a weapon in an arms race, not a solution, but here are a few changes that could make a real difference, in decreasing order of likelihood:
- Digital content, app, and service companies could offer paid, ad-free alternatives for those who want to pay directly. Google, where can I send my $45?
- The U.S. government could adopt privacy protections along the lines of the European Union’s Data Protection Directive.
Someone could develop an Internet platform that enables us to manage our personal information to ensure accuracy, control access, and benefit directly from any commercial use. If we’re to be commercial objects, we should have a say in how our data and attention are monetized.
I’m not holding my breath for any of these, so for now, if you’re bothered by this situation, I encourage you to focus your support on companies that do business in ways you approve of.
The real problem is the increasingly intrusive and invasive nature of current internet advertising. It often generates far more data traffic than the information sought, annoying us with self-playing videos and re-directions and misleading "download" buttons. Makes you feel as though swimming in a pool of floating turds. Advertisers have overplayed their hands and reaped general disdain and hostility. Free content is great, but the price has become excessively high.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau just came out acknowledging that. But they're a trade group, so it remains to be seen if advertisers will take their recommendations.
All site operators need to do is consider why Google's per user revenue is so much higher than anybody else's.
It is no coincidence that Google's ads are low bandwidth & not very obtrusive.
Google wants you to think that, but I highly doubt they really make $45 per user. They make $0 from me, I block all their intrusive ads and scripts.
There's no "thinking" involved. ARPU is a calculation of how much Google makes, divided by the number of users. That's why it's called "average revenue per user."
For everyone like you who doesn't contribute anything to Google's bottom line, there must thus be someone else who contributes $90 per year in some way.
Of course, this is really just a alternative way of looking at Google's income stream, since Google doesn't make much money from individuals at all - it mostly comes from advertisers.
No, Adam C. Engst, I am not.
Until internet advertisement is scam free, malware free and resource efficient, using an adblocker , right now, is an indispensable component to keep a computer safe.
I'm not saying that using an ad-blocker is a bad thing (though it may have undesired repercussions). I'm saying that our overall desire to get something for nothing has created this entire situation.
That's not true either. The only reason I expect free news and articles is because the publishers decided (or at least accepted) the current business model. At no point was I involved in any decision and I have never demanded any free content.
Maybe this business model was doomed from the very beginning, but the ad networks really made sure to exhaust it quickly, with viciousness; and publishers were happy to whistle and look the other way.
We readers are just reading, nothing more nothing less. However internet ads are no just pages that you can turn and ignore. As things got worse, ads were simply required to be blocked.
Instead of all the effort spent on articles on guilt and ethics, I'd like to see articles on how ad networks maintain their code, how modern it is, how it is audited, what's the QC process to ensure performance efficiency, how they control malicious advertisers, how they ensure privacy, etc.
...I'm sure such an article would end up being an exposé.
I agree with David. The internet's original sin was offering everything for free in the early days in order to promote brands, or attract people to this new medium. Now that it's matured, we're paying the price for that huge mistake. Granted, in the early days, I'd have probably been a bit hesitant to pay for a lot of the content, but I wouldn't have been surprised that, say, newspapers or magazines weren't free.
If you go back to the early days of the Internet (which I do), you'll remember that there was in fact a for-pay Internet news service distributed via Usenet - Brad Templeton's ClariNet, founded in 1989. Though prescient, and carrying all sorts of syndicated content like Dave Barry columns, it didn't survive for that long (though I don't know the story of how it ceased to be).
The problem always was that in those days, payments and subscriptions and account management were difficult or impossible. It took many years before Internet infrastructure had grown mature enough to support payments. Plus, not only was all the content on the Internet free, but people often paid a lot of money for their connections, which made asking for more money for content difficult. That model came from the online services like CompuServe and AOL and GEnie and BIX and Delphi, where your fee paid for access, and all the content was free once you were in.
So it's not so much that anyone made a mistake as that they did what they could with the capabilities at hand. And remember, even then, there were plenty of examples of free content that was supported by ads - MacWEEK and PC Week and InfoWorld were the big ones in my world.
I agree, Adam--I remember paying for The Well, Salon, Slate (Still have my old umbrella I received for subscribing!), and many others--and at the time, paying for content was like buying a magazine at a newsstand: you saw something that interested you, you wanted to read it in the comfort of your home (as opposed to, say, going to the library to read it for free), and so you bought it. Not A Big Deal.
I hope we can find a way out of this mess. Thanks for your thoughts.
Paying for content is predicated on the idea the content has value. Most of the online content today has no value - it's just clickbait shite. I've been running adblockers since they existed and even before that via modifications to the hosts file. I feel no qualms about doing so, nor any moral ambiguity whatsoever.
If it has no value, why would you read it? Surely your time has value, and if you spend your time on some activity, that activity must have some value to you, no?
Our desire to get "something for nothing" isn't new. News and entertainment were free in the country from about 1970 (when TV news surpassed newspaper readership) to the 1990s (when paid cable TV replaced broadcast TV).
I am ecstatic that consumers are once again demanding free content. The switch to paid content in the 1990s is significant contributor to the decline of the American middle class.
Hmm, that's an interesting claim. Do you have any stats to back this up? Paid content would seem to be both relatively small in proportion to overall expenses and would fall into voluntary expenses (unlike food, housing, healthcare, and so on). So I'm not quite seeing how paying for content would really contribute to the decline of the middle class, at least based on the general info at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle-class_squeeze
The publishers and advertisers are wholly to blame. I pay for Tidbits and a few other online properties but that is not a scalable solution. Advertising is. But the advertising industry drove me away.
The simple fact is that the advertising industry had opportunities to self-regulate. To say they declined is far too polite. Publishers could have forced reform. But they were too busy trying to figure out how to monetize their content business. Now it is probably too late. Content blockers are here and they aren't going to go away.
I asked politely not to be tracked ever since Safari and Firefox offered the Do Not Track option. Not only did the advertising industry ignore the DNT request, they were actively hostile to the idea. Well, guess what, I found an alternate solution to stop being tracked. But since I can't trust the advertisers, I have to block everything, including non-intrusive ads because they are likely still using those to track me. So everything gets blocked.
I don't have any real complaint about advertising. I don't think most advertising works particularly well but if it pays the publishers bills that is fine with me. But I will not be voluntarily spied on for just being online. If that spoils your business model, oh well. It wasn't like there weren't warnings. Those warnings were just ignored.
I'm always kind of shocked that such ads work at all and are worth paying for. I suppose there must be research to show it is not a futile as I think....
It's a numbers game. It doesn't work well at all, but if you scale across billions of page views, it can work out well enough.
For every semi-intelligent person there are a thousand gullible idiots. Crappy ads make money for the same reason we have Nigerian scam emails.
A great trip down a long memory lane. The proliferation of online advertising and the situation we are in mirrors the growth of the Internet itself. When people started advertising it was an interesting experiment, but no one knew where it would lead to. Today we are where we are, and there is no going back to “the good old days.”
Most likely market forces will continue to put pressure on both advertisers and viewers, and there will be a spectrum of solutions. Advertisers who place creative, short messages people want to watch to advertisers who just shove up intrusive, data-hogging ads that encourage blocking. Some viewers will resent this and install ad-blocking and no-follow tools to control their experience while others will not care, putting up with and ignoring ads.
We will probably be having a similar discussion in a few years, but with completely different parameters. One thing is certain, life online never stops changing.
Two words: Uninstall Flash!
Try this: navigate over to macdailynews.com. Now, uninstall Flash. Navigate over to macdailynews.com. You have made your reading experience more enjoyable, and have eliminated an annoying security issue to boot. You're welcome.
I'm not against advertising. Maybe it's just me but it seems there are now MORE of those obtrusive 'blast ads' that don't just pop up when you arrive at a web page, they 'blast' upon the screen. I don't recall seeing so many before the ad blockers appeared with iOS 9. If that's the strategy ad companies are taking, boy what a way to make your case for ads (sarcasm font engaged).
Adam, I'm sure that the New York Times in the metro NYC area doesn't use the postal service but rather has the delivery trucks, either their own or contracted service depending on where the papers are being delivered as that's cheaper when scaled than postal delivery.
And postal delivery doesn't work at all for delivery before you get up to have it there for you to read over breakfast.
Entirely possible - I don't know how the Times delivers in NYC, but now that you call my attention to it, I think it's delivery services even here in upstate New York. I'll reword...
I guess that non-intrusive advertising will look and behave the same as the page it appears on and so it is not blocked by ad-blockers. The widespread use of ad-blockers should therefore lead to a return to less intrusive advertising - a win/win situation.
On the mac I use a flash-blocker and am surprisesd at how many flash applets appear on most web pages these days (the flash blocker displays them as "F"s)
I don't want to be tracked. So I use ghostery and disconnect. The sites should deliver the ads directly, not from third parties. Bild in Germany is a bad example. Their content is just crap. They loose readers as most newspapers do. Many people prefer independent blogs, which often are much better.
Ditto. I've been reading Bruce Schneier's latest book Data & Goliath, which looks at how ad tracking information gets sold to the NSA, among other things. And how much of this tracking information gets compromised when companies get hacked. That is far more dangerous than the simple presence of ads on web pages.
Ooo, thanks for reminding me! I was planning to include the NSA in the blame game, but forgot while writing.
No sorry, I don't buy it. If you give these companies an inch, they'll take a mile. When you pay for a cable TV subscription, they STILL blast you with ads, because (for some reason) people accept it.
I don't know the exact thinking at the cable companies, but my guess is that they want to increase revenue (because all companies do) and they see that they could either charge more or they could try alternate revenue streams. Presumably their research shows that charging more would turn people off, so instead they look to ads, figuring that the audience is captive anyway. That would also explain the advertising in movie theaters, where you've paid for a ticket.
It's possible that it's not just about being greedy, but about needing more revenue just to keep the service going too. If costs go up on the other end, the companies may need to scramble to increase revenues to compensate.
The never-ending quest for infinite revenue and profit growth is the root of what's wrong with unbridled capitalism. Many of these companies could be extremely profitable and sustainable while keeping customers happy, if not for Wall Street demands.
Hard to know. I can say that at the small business level, there's no worrying about Wall Street, whereas meeting payroll or paying rent is a really big deal. And a lot of Internet content businesses are very, very small.
I don't think Marco pulled the Peace app due to a "crisis of conscience", as you put it. That term would suggest he felt guilty about disrupting some people's business model and that he changed his mind about whether using content blockers was the right thing to do.
Based on his extensive discussion of the story, however, it's clear that he's very much in favor of content blockers and in agreement with the reasons why many people want them. Furthermore, he opined that many in the tech blogosphere have an unsustainable business model because they are only aggregating content created elsewhere and not contributing anything of value.
His decision to pull the app came when he realized he didn't want to establish himself a focal point for the controversy, and have to deal first hand with all the online wrangling and negative publicity.
Yeah, hard to say. He still supports ad blockers, but he also did say "Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit."
It can't feel good to do that to your friends and colleagues.
I've recast slightly to leave it ambiguous as to why he did it.
who really cares why? He's a publicity whore like most of the internet these days. Besides, there are far better solutions than what he built anyway. he was just one of the first and stirred up his own drama to suit his ego.
The ever-interesting Brad Templeton (of ClariNet fame) did an article on roughly this topic not that long ago...
I think that this article
gets much closer to the core of this brouhaha. It explains to my satisfaction, why I find ads to be so obnoxious.
It's an interesting article, indeed, but it's largely about a different topic. I'm not attempting to explain why you find ads to be obnoxious or to criticize the attention economy, I'm trying to show just how we ended up here, largely because of the evolution of approaches that give something away in exchange for ads. It all comes down to how we value content.
The very popular browser plugin Adblock now (as of version 2.42) supports Acceptable Ads by default. This means it does not block ads from advertisers who have promised to follow certain rules to make their ads non-intrusive. I feel this is a good compromise. What do people in the business (Adam?) think? (I also block Flash, both for the annoyance and the zero-days.)
In reality, it's probably fine. In theory, I'm troubled that the company behind Adblock Plus charges large companies to participate in the program. I'm leery of commercial organizations that set themselves up as the guardians of That Which Is Acceptable because it seems like a situation that's ripe for abuse.
I’ve been a New York Times digital subscriber for some time, which in and of itself is no barrier to online ads from that source. Even while being billed every 28 days (clever, aren’t they? that’s 13 times a year), a typical visit to their site lights up my Safari 9 extensions bar to the tunes of these tallies: Ghostery - 5; AdBlockPlus - 7; Blur - 2; uBlock - 9.
But it wasn’t until reading this particular Times piece http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/technology/personaltech/ad-blockers-and-the-nuisance-at-the-heart-of-the-modern-web.html that my eyes were opened to the adverse effect ads can have on mobile platforms. As a user of a Palm Pre 2 (which I refer to as a “semi-literate” cell phone) on a frugal 250-minute, 25MB a month plan I have often come close to exceeding my data limit merely by checking the weather in my area, tops 3 times a week. There’s no way anyone could convince me that the short duration of those visits could aggregate that much data used. Alas, as one of millions my age on a fixed income I am not in a financial position to afford not only a new $300-plus device but also $70 a month for features I don’t currently use.
The article flippantly mentions Adam Smith's book, The Wealth of Nations. Everyone should read this book. Despite being written so long ago, it is an easy read, and absolutely fascinating. It is available, for free, from the iTunes Book Store. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/inquiry-into-nature-causes/id500033506?mt=11
Yeah, my flippancy was aimed at covering my embarrassment for not having read it. It's on my list now. (Though I think someone messed with the description in the iBooks Store, swapping it for something steamier. :-))
Yikes! That description is definitely far steamier than the real book. While not steamy at all, it is a seriously fascinating read.
I don't think there *has* to be a problem. Google is probably the company making the most money on ads, yeah? So they should be the most irritating ad presence on the web... But they're not!
I hate noisy, flashy, and pushy ads. But Google's are not, they are discrete text ads, labeled as such, and don't get in the way of my reading.
So if the most ad-profiting company is doing it with the least disrupting ads, something must be wrong with the way others do it. Maybe they are selling stuff we don't want, or to people who won't buy, or maybe deep down they just like to be pushy and obnoxious. I don't know, but it's an odd situation.
Much as I appreciate Google's lightweight ads on search, it's not clear to me that other types of services and sites could succeed with simple plaintext ads to the same extent. Less isn't always more. :-)
If I notice a link is to The New York Times or The New Yorker which only allow viewing a limited number of articles per month, I just skip clicking and move on. I survived without reading those publications in print for many years so I can survive now without reading them. I still use up most of the free views with accidental clicks.
The difference between New York Times Home Delivery and NYT Online isn't just 15 cents. NYT Online has no ads.
So one way to think about it is that the content is worth about $100 per year, regardless of how you access it, and the advertising pays for the paper, printing and delivery.