An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers

[Update: 29 June 2016 — Forbes has backed off, but Wired hasn’t yet. So the invitation stands. So does a path forward.]


A few days ago, I followed this link at Digg to Forbes, where I was met by the message above.

Problem is, I don’t have an ad blocker installed. I have tracking protection. Three kinds, in fact. (Let me explain: my work requires experimenting with many different privacy protection tools. It just happens that right now I have these three working in Firefox, my default browser.) Here is what Ghostery sees:


Here is what Disconnect sees:


And here is what Privacy Badger sees:


So I’m guessing what blocked the ad was one of the two red sliders in Privacy Badger. I slid the one to yellow and it seemed to load the desired page without a problem, but I don’t know if Forbes would have let me though anyway or not . I dunno how to tell what did what.

Then today I ran into the same thing at Wired, looking for some of my own words there. Here’s the roadblock Wired put in my path:


Again, I’m not blocking ads. I’m just trying to block tracking. I also just checked, and Disconnect, Ghostery and Privacy Badger are each doing nothing, far as I can tell, to block anything on Wired. They’re all green-lighting everything. That means they’ve already whitelisted it. Yet Wired thinks I’m blocking ads.

As it happens I‘ve been a Wired subscriber for the duration. But, when I log in (by clicking on the link above), it takes me to a billing page. There it wants to charge me $3.99 every four weeks, which comes to about $52 a year, on top of what I’m already paying for the print publication, which (I would hope) ought to give me access to the same thing online. Very confusing.

Thing is, I don’t mind ads. I even like some of them. Back in the last millennium, I was a partner in Hodskins Simone & Searls, one of Silicon Valley’s top advertising agencies.

And, like most readers, I want publishers to make money.

But I also believe publishers don’t need to do that by tracking me in ways I neither like nor approve. They can give me ads on their pages that are perfectly safe, just like the ads that have funded print magazines for the duration. Those were always respectful of people’s privacy, and don’t rely on a herd of third parties following people around while they go about their lives. They were also more valuable, because they sent clear creative and economic signals, both uncompromised by suspicions of surveillance and other forms of bad acting.

Here is what Joshua Bernstein (@JoshuaBernstein), sourcing Wired‘s Mark McClusky (@markmcc), reported in Bloomberg about what the magazine is trying to do here:

More than 1 in 5 people who visit Wired Magazine’s website use ad-blocking software. Starting in the next few weeks, the magazine will give those readers a choice: stop blocking ads, pay to look at a version of the site that is unsullied by advertisements, or go away…

Wired plans to charge $3.99 for four weeks of ad-free access to its website. In many places where ads appear, the site will simply feature more articles, said Mark McClusky, the magazine’s head of product and business development. The portion of his readership that uses ad blockers are likely to be receptive to a discussion about their responsibility to support the businesses they rely on for information online, McClusky said.

There are legitimate reasons that people use ad blockers, according to McClusky, like a desire to speed up web browsing or not wanting to be tracked online. But Wired has bills to pay. “I think people are ready to have that conversation in a straightforward way,” he said.

This post is part of that conversation. So is what I’ve been writing over the last eight years on what we’ve recently come to call the “adblock war.”

The reason this is a “war,” and it’s impossible for publishers on their own to make peace, is that the only solutions that can scale are the individual reader’s. Ad blockers and tracking protection in browsers all work for the individual, giving everybody scale. Roadblocks and tollbooths like Forbes’ and Wired’s piss readers off, drive them away, or both. Worse, every one of them is different, which is kind of an anti-scale way of doing things.

At this early stage, however, none of the solutions that scale for individuals also work in ways that are friendly to publishers. (Nor do what the browser makers are doing on their own—each differently, which is also anti-scale.)

So we need to take another step, again from the individual’s side, this time with an olive branch.

And that’s what we’ll do at VRM Day (25 April) and IIW(26–28 April), both at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. I invite Forbes, Wired, and all publishers, advertisers, agencies, browser makers and other parties interested in peace to come join us there.

On the table is an easy solution: simple publisher-friendly preference a reader can assert and a publisher can agree to. It says, “Just show me ads not based on tracking me” — or words to that effect, which we’ll work out. (Update: we’ve dubbed this the #NoStalking offer.)

This term will be standard and enabled by code on both the client and server side. The standard and code will live at Customer Commons, which is built for that purpose, on the Creative Commons mode, which has worked well for many years. (And, like ProjectVRM, was hatched at the Berkman Center.) Some of the code already exists. We’ll start writing the rest at IIW next week.

Both VRM Day and IIW are unconferences. No keynotes, no panels, no sponsor exhibits. Everything happens at breakouts, all of which are topics chosen and led by participants. VRM Day is for presenting and planning the work we’ll be doing over the next three days at IIW. We do two IIWs per year, and this is our 22nd. I don’t know any gathering that is more leveraged for getting stuff done. Register here.

For more background on the peace we can forge together, see here and here.


11 responses to “An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers”

  1. I saw the exact same thing the other day. You are a much more patient man than I Doc. I just thought oh so you want to control the settings on my computer, well I guess I’ll just go elsewhere. Later Forbes! The thing is I don’t really mind the ads, of the weren’t these blinking annoying things that makes the website load so unbelievably slowly. Why should I sit there and wait for your stupid looking flash thing to load sticking up my ram?

    1. Thanks, Kasper.

      I’m patient because I’m trying to fix the problem. If I weren’t, I’d do the same as you.

      Wish us well. It’s an uphill battle.

  2. Most of the focus in this conversation is on ad-block software. My situation is a bit different, as I use OpenDNS as my DSN provider. For one thing, this gives me content control for my family, including malware sites, squatting sites, and others. So rather than setting this on every single browser in my home, or even every single device, I have one-stop control over my network. The end result is that I can go pretty much anywhere I want on the net, without dealing with a ton of the nuisance sites on the net.

    Part of that setup includes blacklisting for sites like,,, and the whole host of other ad or tracking sites. When Wired asks me to open up my home network so they can send me content, I’m … disinclined.

    The other aspect of this issue is that when I go to view an article on the web, the article itself is a small fraction of the bandwidth. Other sources have dug into exactly how much of your bandwidth goes to serving advertising, tracking, metrics and so forth, but suffice to say it’s a large portion.

    I’m intrigued by your distinction between tracking and advertising. The reality is that if Wired chose to, say, host and serve the ads from, my setup wouldn’t block them, and I’d be fine with that (if it was advertising content only). So between me changing my home network configuration and them changing the way they serve advertising, I’m happy to find other venues if they are also unwilling to change their setup.

  3. In addition to everything else you mentioned, the subscription model makes assumptions about how we use the web site. Personally, I don’t have any one web site that I rely on regularly. I have a variety of filtering agents that alert me when things of interest are available, based on topics of interest. Wired gets preferential treatment in the list for the topics in which it has expertise and overall reputation. (For example, I’ll read Wired above a known pseudo-science web site on the same topic, no matter how lurid the headline the trash site uses.) This comes to some 40 or 50 sources I regularly bounce back and forth in.

    Like any other subscription – once you pay it, you are invested in that service and the sunk cost becomes a factor in your preference for the site. Subscribe to Wired and when faced with the next subscription wall, you may prefer Wired. Subscribe to 5 or 10 sites and the sunk cost becomes an opportunity cost – each new subscription begins to displace dozens of other potential sources. Now you begin to read *only* from those sites.

    Extrapolated to the extreme, the sunk cost completely displaces diversity of viewpoint and quality of reporting as factors in choosing what to read. I probably visit 40 – 50 different sources a week and might go weeks between visits on any specific one. No way I’m giving a $1/wk to 40 or 50 web sites. Nobody would.

    So in addition to everything else you mentioned as being wrong with this model, I hate that it slowly, almost imperceptibly erects an information firewall that locks you in a sealed room with a few favored information providers. It’s cute in the larva stage but if you keep feeding it $1/wk eventually what hatches out is your own personalized carnivorous echo chamber dead set on biting the hand that feeds it. I much prefer the approach Mozilla had been working on of acting as central agent for an all-you-can-eat subscription then distributing aggregated micro-payments to content providers based on unit consumption.

  4. We did that already. It’s called “Do Not Track”, every major browser supports it, and advertisers and site owners have ignored it.

    I mean, keep on fighting the good fight, but don’t hold your breath or anything.

    1. I’m not holding my breath, and not giving up.

      Do Not Track had no teeth. We have teeth now with ad blocking and tracking protection. Adtech is collapsing (a subject getting very little press so far, but stay tuned). And what we’re proposing now is a deal — not just an http header — that’s good for publishers and advertisers that both should find agreeable. We’re also getting some (perhaps many) of the interested parties together next week at VRM Day and IIW. So I have reason to hope.

      FWIW, I’ve been writing about this, and involved with it, for a long time. See here . The time is right. So is the place.

  5. I wish I still had your optimism on the subject. There are so many ways of tracking users now–some of them completely passive, that look at the effective fingerprint created by your unique browser configuration, OS, IP address, etc–that even if you block them all today, tomorrow someone will have come up with something new. And marketing people are so hungry for the data (often only a fraction as valuable as the people selling these systems make them out to be) that there will always be buyers. I work on a e-commerce website, and we got so many requests to add and remove these trackers that we eventually modified the site to let the marketing people do it themselves so we’d at least be able to work on other things.

    I just feel like these meetings are going to end up like the Paris accords. Everyone’s going to say things need to change, come up with a nice shiny plan, and then the people with the power to change things are going to go home and get right on not doing anything. Even when sites promise to not use third party trackers, web display advertising is inherently insecure. All it takes is one zero day and one ad network that doesn’t check its javascript closely enough. The only way to change the web advertising business is going to be to break it, and build something new in its place.

    I’m happy to support sites that produce content I find important with services like Patreon, or direct subscriptions when they’re not being all passive aggressive about it like Wired. I think that model is the future, barring a rather fundamental shake up in the way the web is delivered to end-users.

  6. I spoke on the phone today to one of the biggest adtech operators, who told me the adtech collapse is happening, even though there is little reporting on it. You can see some of it in the volume drop Appnexus reported here, they said.

    Marketers aren’t where the money comes from. Advertisers are, and they are not happy. First, they don’t define themselves as advertisers. They are companies with businesses to run. Advertising to them is an item on the expense side of their balance sheets.

    To them the problem also isn’t ad blocking; it’s bad acting by intermediaries obsessed with unwelcome personalization, wanton data extraction, chasing clicks to the worst places, and turning what used to be simple ad placement into a giant four-dimensional shell game. Among other things.

    No adtech company can IPO today, and no VC will fund a new one. The whole category is tainted and radioactive. The shine is off the CMO as well. Budget money that got sucked away from other functions and into marketing are starting to get sucked back to where it does more obvious good. Also, in the words of one BigCo exec, “The average CMO has a life expectancy of nine months, with a latency of 18 months before the problems they cause to appear.” Those problems are clear now.

    The main problem at this point is that nearly all the ad placements you see are by outsourced adtech companies, rather than by the publishers themselves. But that too is not going to remain tenable for the duration. It’s already broken and there is already hunger by both publishers ad advertisers to replace it.

    The gatherings next week are made for getting things done. Not just for talking about them. Most likely we won’t have a shiny plan come out of the other end. If all goes well, we’ll have loose consensus and some run-able code. Worst case is that we’ll know the problems better and make other forms of progress.

    But I’m an optimist, or I wouldn’t be doing this.

  7. i stopped going to wired and forbes a long time ago,
    because their tracking and obese pages insulted me.

    and i still have far too much “content” to “consume”.

    so, you know, good riddance…

    and i suspect that even if you pay them, and they
    “turn off” the ads, they will continue to track you…
    once they get that in their blood, it doesn’t go away.


  8. bowerbird, we’re trying to fix a broken system here. So are publishers, who I now seem to be speaking to every day. Stalking their readers is not what they want to do. It’s what the third party adtech companies they hire to place advertising do. It’s in the adtech companies’ blood, not the publishers.

    What we’re offering here is the start of a path toward weaning publishers from third parties that live off surveillance. I’m optimistic we can make that happen.

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