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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 consumption).

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.

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