How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract

ripping up a contractAdvocates of adtech—tracking-based advertising—are lately claiming that ad blocking is breaking the social contract. This is self-serving and delusional bullshit. Let me explain why.

In my browser, when I visit a page, I am requesting that page. I am not requesting stuff other than that page itself. This is what the hypertext protocol (http) provides.

(Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. They also scaffold the social contract.)

Likewise, when I visit a site (such as a seller) with a service on the Web, I am not requesting stuff other than what that site presents to me in text and graphics.

So, for example, when I go to, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. And when I go to, I expect the browser to display the index page of the site — and, if I have some kind of relationship with that site, recognition that I’m a returning visitor or customer.

In neither of those cases do I expect tracking files, other than those required to remember state, which was the original purpose of Lou Montouli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. Now known as just “the cookie,” it is in ubiquitous use today. In  Lou’s detailed history of that creation he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.”

Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world. This time I’ll use my sister as an example of a typical reader. She’s a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy, and organized in the way she interacts with what we generally call “content.”

When a newspaper arrives, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out all the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons that might interest her. Then she strips out sections that don’t interest her. The Travel section might go on one Sunday, the Sports section on another.

Then, when she reads the paper, she ignores most of the ads. One exception might be the magazine section, which tends to contain full-page brand ads by companies like Apple and Toyota. Those she might notice and like at some level. It all depends

My point is that she consciously blocks some ads and allows some others, some of which she pays attention to, but most of which she does not.

This kind of interaction is what the user expects the hypertext protocol (http) and good manners on the part of websites and services will provide. Websites that spy on users outside of their own domains (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple.

Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But they should be opt-in for users, not opt-out. Alas, that kind of tracking is a baby in the blocking bathwater. (The EFF’s Privacy Badger blocks many of these by default, and provides sliders for degrees of opting in or out of them.)

How did we get from the online world Lou Montouli sought to improve in ’94 and the one we have today? Check the metaphors for what we had and what we’ve lost.

Back in the mid-’90s we called the browser our car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, are privacy technologies. They give us ways of operating in the world that conceal our most private spaces — ones where others are not welcome, except by invititation.

But, thanks to Zuboff’s Laws, our browsers became infected with spyware. Here is what those laws say:

  1. Everything that can be automated will be automated.
  2. Everything that can be informated will be informated.
  3. Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.

Sure, some of adtech’s surveillance is meant to give us a “better advertising experience” or whatever. Buy that’s beside the main point: it breaks the social contract in both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. It gives us what none of us asked for and what most of us don’t want.

[Later…In the time between when I wrote this and now (23 February 2018), Shoshana completed a seven-year writing project which when complete became In the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: a magisterial book of commanding authority that also features a flattering blurb by yours truly on the back cover. Her laws have been massively proven, and the world is far worse for it. Our great shame in the meantime is that we’ve done jack shit to fix the problem. (And no, the new laws that have come along—GDPR in Europe and CCPR in California—have only made things worse.)]

A few years ago, we tried to send a message to publishers and advertisers with Do Not Track, but it was fought, mocked and ignored by those to whom it spoke.

Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we took actions that can’t be ignored, by installing ad and tracking blockers. In doing so we acted as free and independent agents, just as we do in the everyday world with our clothing, our shelter and our cars.

What we need next are ways for us to engage constructively with publishers, in alignment with well-understood social contracts long established in the everyday world, and embodied in the hypertext protocol.

Engagement will also give us scale. As I explain in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War,

Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.

But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.

If we leave fixing things up to publishers and the adtech industry, all of us will be given different prosthetic hands, each of which will interact in different ways that are not of our choosing and give us no scale. In fact that is what we already get with the DAA’s Ad Choices and Ghostery’s massive opt-out list. We see how well that worked.

The road to personal independence and engagement scale is a long one.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Except in 1999, when we wrote that, we didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew we would, sooner or later, as a native entitlement of the Net.

In The Data Bubble, I said,

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

In fact it the tide didn’t turn, because we didn’t yet have the tools to turn it. The Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at The last entry is in 2013. They should fire it up again.

Because now, in late 2015, we have the first of those tools, with ad and tracking blockers.

But we have to do better. And by “we” I mean us human beings — and the developers working on our side for the good of everybody.

Note: This is the sixth post in a series covering online advertising, starting on 12 August. Here are the first five:

  1. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff
  2. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech
  3. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business?
  4. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them
  5. Debugging adtext assumptions

[Later… I have since put this series in a list titled People vs. Adtech that now contains 120 posts, essays and articles between 2008 and 2019. (23 February 2019)]

17 responses to “How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract”

  1. Over the next few years, the adoption of ad-tracking will accelerate because the trust with advertisers is broken. Once a person has installed ad-blocking they are not going back whatever incentive the advertiser or publisher offers.

    It is odd that the brand name advertisers allow this to happen considering it is their reputation that suffers. There would be a helluva commotion if TV advertising was like adtech. I read today that the New York Times have an internal sales ad team for their print papers but outsource their digital advertising to adtech (Google and Facebook, I guess). A positive step would be for publishers to regain control over their digital distribution channels.

    As you’ve said many times, the commercial Internet is but 20 years old and it does not have to be this way. In fact, we need Internet 2.0 to come along quickly with the fixes for security, privacy and true distributed computing with a web that matches the architecture.

  2. It is always interesting to see articles like these on blogs or sites that track their users using gravatar, google-analytics, statsflicker (thanks for using that one, it did not point to localhost yet so I will fix that) and twitter…

    1. Agreed, Hans. I’ll pass your reply to the geeks who publish my blog.

  3. As a person, I don’t care what the advertisers want, at all. There is not a single “social contract” that will make me feel obligated in any way to see advertisements, or be tracked by advertisers.

    Advertisements are an intrusion online, period. There are different degrees of intrusion, some worse than others, but all of them intrude in the online space. I am not using the Web to see an advertisement, ever, in any context … period.

    All of that said, they (ads) are going to exist on the Web, in some form. I am not obliged to see them however, so I will continue to use every tool at my disposal not to see them.

    Advertisers that are willing to cross the boundary of ad blocking capabilities (which some will try, if they aren’t already) are doing damage to the brand’s or product’s reputation, period.

    Because if an advertiser is willing to cross that threshold, it gives me the impression that they are so desperate to get my attention. I don’t respond to desperate attempts.

    So this is the deal, advertisers, when I want to buy something … and I need to know something about that something I’m buying … the Web tells me everything I want to know. The people I can connect to tell me the rest. I don’t need you at all. Never have (even in the offline world), and probably never will.

  4. The above comment does not mean I am against advertising as a method to reach people, there just has to be a better way to do it.

  5. Joseph, here are the bottom lines of my latest post over on the ProjectVRM blog:

    Finally, for those who want to block all advertising, it’s cool that you’ve got the tools you want already. I’m sure they’ll get better too. Just bear in mind that there’s a difference between the ads that have sponsored publishing and broadcasting for the duration, and the junky stuff that has taught us to hate all advertising online, and created the market for ad blockers in the process.

    This leaves open the question of whether, in a world where users of the Net can block whatever they want, we will have much advertising at all.

    But at the stage where we find ourselves today, the best move we can make is valving off the tracking-based stuff, as a matter of privacy and principle.

  6. […] ‹ How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract […]

  7. Doc,

    I’m with you.

    As much as I dislike the thought, I think there is a paradox at play here:

    The more “we” try to move towards “block all ads” (or most ads etc…) the more “they” will try to be intrusive.

    Thieves send out malware, we block it with security software, they up the ante, we up the ante … and round and round it goes. So goes the ad interruption game, IMO.

  8. Well in cases of sites like LinkedIn or Facebook, everyone agrees to be tracked and displayed ads as a cost of the “free” service. As the web advances, ad and cookie-blocking browser features will no longer work. HTML5 banner ads already dodge anti-adware extensions and many sites block you from accessing a site if your cookies are turned off. The question is do you want to be tracked or PAY to not be tracked? Data and online utility access is not free. Businesses need to make money whether you pay for it or an advertiser pays for it. It’s like telling Netflix and HBO you aren’t going to pay for content, but you still want access to it anyway. You used the newspaper as an example, well your sister paid for the newspaper, so she has a right to pick and choose what see wants to see. That’s the true social contract.

    1. RJ,

      First, everybody using an ad-supported site expects to see ads. But they don’t agree to be tracked. They tolerate it. (Source: The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploiitation, a report from the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania.) Says the report, “A majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data — and that’s why many appear to be engaged in tradeoffs.”

      Second, “Web advances” do not happen only on the publishing side. They happen in browsers, add-ons and other tools that work for individuals. Expect those to advance as well.

      Third, there are countless choices other than being tracked or paying not to be tracked. This is the Internet, and nothing is old here, or off the table of possibilities. Countless innovations are still possible that can do a better job of matching supply and demand than adtech’s surveillance and guesswork business.

      Fourth, of course businesses need to make money, and they have many choices about how to do that. Advertising isn’t the only way to make money on the Web, and adtech isn’t the only kind of advertising. Don Marti, Bob Hoffman and I have all been arguing for years on behalf of display advertising that isn’t based on tracking and carries high creative and economic signal value. It worked forever on TV and radio, and in print as well. (By the way, I have nothing against advertising. I co-founded and served as creative director for one of Silicon Valley’s top ad agencies in the ’80s and ’90s.)

      Fifth, while publishers have a right to show us advertising, we also have a right to control what our browsers do for us. They’re our browsers. If we want to block ads and the tracking that comes with it, we can, because our browsers allow us to do that.

      Fifth, ad-supported websites have nothing in common with HBO and Netflix. Those are commercial subscription services we pay not to see advertising on them.

      Finally, a good thing for publishers and advertisers about ad and tracking blockers is that they send a clear signal of what readers want and don’t want. They should listen.

  9. Your fifth point made my point exactly, you are paying not to see ads. Outside of the end user paying for content or service, the only other way a business can sustain is through advertisement.

    As a small to mid size online business, the only way you can sustain internet operations, without end user payments, is through high dollar advertisements. Right now, there are only two forms of advertisements that can generate enough revenue to pay the bills; 1) Targeted ads 2) Related service ads (ie. CreditKarma with CC offers, Mortgage offers, etc.)

    The second option can also be integrated into content marketing where you pay people to blog about your products, but that is only effective if you get great distribution. Which for most will not provide the ROI they need to sustain it as an effective marketing channel without ultra low cost distribution.

    The 3rd option is only available to large companies, or small companies who choose to scale very slowly, which is creating a sales team and selling your own ad space like newspapers, TV, Radio, etc.

    Advertisers go to the large companies whereas small shops will have to bang on doors to get the ad dollars. I know first hand, because i started my internet career that way.

    If you can think of another way to produce the revenue from advertisers required to rapidly scale and sustain operations whiling creating a profit and eliminating tracking then I’m all ears.

    1. RJ,

      I think it comes down to a moral question: Is it right to track people without their explicit consent? I say it’s not, you say it is. We each have reasons for our answers, and we’re not likely to find areas of agreement.

      But we can keep talking. And, I hope, make each other think more deeply about the positions we hold.

      Your last question is a good one — which is what people say when they don’t have an answer. So look for some in my next post in this series. 🙂

      And thanks again for engaging me here. I do appreciate it.

  10. Personally, I think the data that comes with tracking pushes product advancements to a whole new level. Soon, you will be able to put all of the little things that eat up most of your day on autopilot thanks to the data collected.

    If my insight into the future is correct, one day in the near future AI will allow you to have a digital personal assistant that literally handles all day to day tasks for you thanks to the data it collects and assess.

    A good example, a device in a toilet to analyze your waste will tell you what you need to improve your diet, tell you your inventory of those items based on what was purchased through your CC and what was disposed of in your trash, then place an order at the grocery store and have it delivered to your home without you doing a thing. It will also schedule doctors appointments for you, turn on/off lights/fans/air as you enter and leave rooms, send navigation to your car to get to the doctor, start the car and open the door as you approach, drive you to the doctor, send the doctor your medical data and recent health data tracked, etc… The list goes on… The world of automation through data is upon us and I for one welcome the idea.

    1. First, RJ, thanks for engaging us here. I do appreciate the pushback and the dialog.

      Second, I’m getting cruched for time, so I’ll need to keep the responses short for now. (A good discipline anyway.)

      Your “automation through data” examples bring us into the Internet of Things (IoT), which is mostly promise at this point but surely inevitable in many forms. On that topic I’m most guided by the writings and inventions of Phil Windley. Here are his blog posts on the subject. Most are technical, but two that aren’t and make great sense are Self-Sovereign Authorities and the Epic Struggle for IoT, and The Compuserve of Things. That one begins,

      On the Net today we face a choice between freedom and captivity, independence and dependence. How we build the Internet of Things has far-reaching consequences for the humans who will use—or be used by—it. Will we push forward, connecting things using forests of silos that are reminiscent the online services of the 1980’s, or will we learn the lessons of the Internet and build a true Internet of Things?

      I believe we also find ourselves in that struggle with the “war” between ad blocking and tracking.

  11. […] How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract […]

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