People vs. Adtech

Below are blog posts, articles and essays I’ve written toward four goals in fighting surveillance of our private spaces online by the tracking-based advertising business and its dependents in publishing and other online services. Those are,


  1. To replace tracking-based advertising (aka adtech) with advertising that sponsors journalism, doesn’t frack our heads for the oil of personal data, and respects personal freedom and agency.
  2. To goad journalists toward grabbing the third rail of their own publications’ participation in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism (adtech being a prime example). Perpetrators include nearly every name-brand news purveyor on the Web, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The GuardianThe Atlantic, The New Yorkerand The Washington Post. (Links from @acfou‘s PageXray.) Get this straight: these pubs are no less guilty of spying on their readers than are the tech giants which the same publications are glad (and correct) to examine and shame—and are participating far less obviously. (To see how guilty they are, run any of the tracking protection browser add-ons listed here, or run PageXray, above.)
  3. To encourage research toward fully understanding what adtech is and does, plus guidance toward better business models for publishers.
  4. To help guide business and government toward respecting both personal privacy and personal agency in the digital world. Alas, the GDPR and the CCPA have done too little, so far, to halt surveillance by adtech—and almost nothing to advance personal agency. If the GDPR alone had done its job, GDPR compliance wouldn’t be an industry primarily composed of outsourced suppliers providing ways to obey the law’s letter while screwing its spirit. To see how big that industry is, go to that last link.)

It should help to know that all the advertising you ever saw in non-digital media—the kind that created nearly every worldwide brand you can name—still works fine. It also requires minimal cognitive and operational overhead and actually supports both advertisers and media. (For more, read Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.)

  1. Please, United. Don’t do it. (28 November 2023)
  2. Coming soon to a radio near you: personalized ads (25 September 2023 in ProjectVRM)
  3. Markets vs. Marketing in the Age of AI (15 May 2023 in ProjectVRM)
  4. Permission Slip, a Consumer Reports Privacy App (a 9 February 2019 podcast on Reality 2.0)
  5. The most important standard in development today (11 October 2022)
  6. Attention is Not a Commodity (18 September 2022)
  7. The Empire Strikes On (31 July 2022)
  8. Customer-Centric Marketing With Doc Searls (21 July 2021)
  9. Toward a lexicon for advertising in both directions (9 June 2022 in ProjectVRM)
  10. Apple + (or vs) Adtech Part II (30 May 2021)
  11. Apple + (or vs) Adtech Part I (29 May 2021)
  12. How the Cookie Poisoned the Web (14 May 2021)
  13. A New Way (5 May 2021 in ProjectVRM and Customer Commons)
  14. Thinking outside the browser (21 March 2021 in ProjectVRM and Customer Commons)
  15. Why is the “un-carrier” falling into the hellhole of tracking-based advertising? (11 March 2021)
  16. Just in case you feel safe with Twitter (26 January 2021)
  17. Bet on obsolescence (23 August 2020)
  18. Time for advertising to call off the dogs (4 August 2020)
  19. So far, privacy isn’t a debate (22 June 2020)
  20. The best way to forget is to never know (9 June 2020)
  21. What if we called cookies “worms”? (26 May 2018 in ProjectVRM)
  22. Zoom needs to clean up its privacy act (27 March 2020, and continuing with More on Zoom and Privacy, Helping Zoom, and Zoom’s new privacy policy)
  23. Saving the Internet—and All the Commons It Makes Possible (20 February 2020). This is the print version of my Ostrom Memorial Lecture, given on 9 October 2019 at the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. The video is here and my part begins 11 minutes in.)
  24. Do you really need all this personal information, @RollingStone? (22 January 2020)
  25. On Privacy Fundamentalism (3 September 2019 in ProjectVRM)
  26. There are better ways to save journalism (1 September 2019)
  27. Privacy Manifesto, in continuing draft at the ProjectVRM wiki, it was also duplicated experimentally on 6 July 2019 at Medium)
  28. Dear @WashingtonPost (28 June 2019)
  29. The Wurst of the Web (23 March 2019 in ProjectVRM)
  30. *Is ad blocking past 2 billion worldwide? (23 March 2019)
  31. The Spinner’s hack on journalism (27 February 2019)
  32. A citizen-sovereign way to pay for news—or for any creative work (11 February 2019, enlarged on 15 February)
  33. If your privacy is the hands of others alone, you don’t have any (16 December 2018 in Privacy News Online and 9 January 2019 in Linux Journal)
  34. Privacy as a Right (5 December 2018 in Privacy News Online)
  35. Privacy is Personal (30 November 2018 in Privacy News Online)
  36. Is this a turning point for publishing? (24 October 2018)
  37. Toward no longer running naked in the virtual world (12 October 2018)
  38. Engineers vs. Re-Engineering (2 August 2018 in Linux Journal)
  39. Privacy = personal agency + respect by others for personal dignity (10 July 2018 in ProjectVRM)
  40. Without enforcement, the GDPR is a fail (3 July 2018)
  41. Why personal agency matters more than personal data (and in Medium on 23 June 2018)
  42. Let’s solve the deeper problem that makes Facebook’s bad acting possible (8 June 2018 in Linux Journal)
  43. What’s wrong with bots is they’re not our own (7 June 2018)
  44. A Brand Advertising Restoration Project (31 May 2018 in Linux Journal)
  45. Wanted: Online Pubs Doing Real (and therefore GDPR-compliant) Advertising (30 May 2018)
  46. An FUQ for the GDPR (24 May 2018 in Linux Journal)
  47. Cookies that go the other way (21 May 2018)
  48. Let’s Make May 25th Privmas Day (16 May 2018)
  49. Our time has come (16 May 2018 in ProjectVRM)
  50. GDPR will pop the adtech bubble (12 May 2018)
  51. Privacy is still personal (4 May 2018 in Linux Journal)
  52. Privacy is personal. Let’s start there. (2 May 2018 in Customer Commons and in Medium)
  53. How wizards and muggles break free from The Matrix (4 April 2018 in Linux Journal)
  54. For privacy we need tech more than policy (2 April 2018)
  55. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problems are nothing compared to what’s coming for all of online publishing (23 March 2018)
  56. Help Us Cure Online Publishing of Its Addiction to Personal Data (14 March 2018 in Linux Journal)
  57. What’s the Geek Take on the GDPR? (12 March in Linux Journal)
  58. Every User a Neo (31 January 2018 in Linux Journal)
  59. Facebook’s Fatal Flaws (4 January 2018 in Medium)
  60. An easy fix for a broken advertising system (12 October 2017 in Medium and in my blog)
  61. Without aligning incentives, we can’t kill fake news or save journalism (15 September 2017 in Medium)
  62. Let’s get some things straight about publishing and advertising (9 September 2017 and the same day in Medium)
  63. We need customertech. Simple as that. (4 September 2017 in Medium. It’s also an answer to a comment under “Markets are more than marketing,” below.)
  64. Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR (3 September 2017 in ProjectVRM and 7 October in Medium).
  65. Markets are about customers, not marketing or advertising. (2 September 2017 in Medium).
  66. How the personal data extraction industry ends (27 August 2017 and 28 August 2017 in Medium).
  67. Publishers’ and advertisers’ rights end at a browser’s front door (17 June 2017 in Medium). It updates one of the 2015 blog posts below.
  68. Google enters its chrysalis (16 June 2017 and on the same date in Medium).
  69. Actual chat with an Internet disservice provider (12 June 2017 in Medium). Relevant because it uses technical relatives of adtech to make humans sound like robots and vice versa.
  70. How to plug the publishing revenue drain (9 June 2017 in Medium). It expands on the opening (#publishing) section of my Daily Tab for that date.
  71. Customertech Will Turn the Online Marketplace Into a Marvel-Like Universe in Which All of Us are Enhanced (29 May 2017 at ProjectVRM and in Medium)
  72. CustomerTech (15 May 2017 at ProjectVRM)
  73. When the customer becomes the first party (a talk given on 9 May 2017 at the European Identity and Cloud conference in Munich)
  74. The question is whether we’ll kill all of advertising or just some of it (6 May 2017 in Medium).
  75. Our radical hack on the whole marketplace (30 April 2017 in ProjectVRM)
  76. What if businesses agreed to customers’ terms and conditions? (28 April 2017)
  77. How are ad blockers affecting journalism? (My answer to a Quora question on 27 April 2017)
  78. The only way customers come first (26 April 2017 in Customer Commons)
  79. Brands need to fire adtech (23 March, and 25 March in Medium)
  80. The Problem with Content (1 March 2017 in Linux Journal)
  81. The Next Revolution in Advertising Will Be One Customers Lead (7 February 2017 in Medium)
  82. How True Advertising Can Save Journalism From Drowning in a Sea of Content (22 January 2017 in Medium and 26 January 2017 in my blog.)
  83. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (31 December 2016 in Medium)
  84. After Peak Marketing (3 December 2016 in Medium)
  85. How tools for customers have more leverage than tools for business alone (16 November 2016 in Medium).
  86. The egg on Zuck’s face. (12 November 2016) and That’s not fake egg on Zuck’s face (24 November in Medium). The latter improves on the former.
  87. Marketing bullshit is a structural problem. (28 October 2016 in Doc.Blog) Nice follow from Don Marti at Aloodo.
  88. The problem for people isn’t advertising, and the problem for advertising isn’t blocking. The problem for both is tracking.(21 October 2016 and the same date in Medium).
  89. Market intelligence that flows both ways (27 August 2016 in Medium. It updates a 2014 blog post.)
  90. It’s People vs. Advertising, not Publishers vs. Adblockers (26 August 2016 in ProjectVRM and 27 August 2016 in Medium)
  91. The cash model of customer experience (17 August 2016 and 18 August 2016 in Medium).
  92. If it weren’t for retargeting, we might not have adblocking (13 August 2016 in ProjectVRM and 15 August 2016 in Medium)
  93. Nobody else owns our experiences (3 August 2016 and 1 October 2017 in Medium).
  94. The Castle Doctrine (19 June 2016 in ProjectVRM, and in Medium)
  95. Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers (11 May 2016, and in Medium)
  96. Is the advertising bubble finally starting to pop? (9 May 2016, and in Medium)
  97. How customers can debug business with one line of code (19 April 2016 in ProjectVRM and in Medium)
  98. An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers (15 April 2016 and in Medium)
  99. TV Viewers to Madison Avenue: Please quit driving drunk on digital (14 Aprl 2016, and in Medium)
  100. For true two-way agreements with websites and services, we need terms we can assert and they can accept. (9 April 2016 in Medium)
  101. The Data Bubble Redux (9 April 2016)
  102. A Way Off the Ranch (1 April 2016 in Medium)
  103. Time for THEM to agree to OUR terms (29 March 2016 in Customer Commons and in Medium)
  104. Giving Customers Scale (15 March 2016 in Medium, expanding on an earlier post in Customer Commons)
  105. Earth to marketing: customers don’t want to be “acquired” (14 March 2016 in ProjectVRM)
  106. @BlockstackOrg, @IPFS, @OpenBazaar, @OneName, @Telehash, @Mine_Labs #Mediachain, @IBMIVB #ADEPT: Come 2 @IDworkshop and @VRM Day (28 February in ProjectVRM) This was later retitled and partially rewritten as Iot & IoM next week at IIW (20 April 2016)
  107. What if we don’t need advertising at all? (15 February 2016 in ProjectVRM) Also in Medium (Same date.)
  108. Is Adblock good for customers? (4 February 2016 in Quora)
  109. Rethinking John Wanamaker (18 January 2016)
  110. What we can do with ad blocking’s leverage (1 January 2016 in Linux Journal)
  111. Why ad blocking is good (17 December 2015 talk at the U. of Michigan)
  112. More thoughts on privacy (13 December 2015)
  113. The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It (11 December 2015 in MIT Technology Review, and also 1 January 2016 on Audible)
  114. At last, Cluetrain’s time has come (5 December 2015)
  115. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)
  116. How Will the Big Data Craze Play Out (1 November 2015 in Linux Journal)
  117. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  118. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October on the ProjectVRM blog)
  119. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)
  120. The biggest boycott in world history (28 September 2015)
  121. A Way to Peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  122. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  123. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  124. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  125. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  126. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  127. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015, and 2 July 2016 in an updated version in Medium)
  128. Captivity rules (29 March 2015)
  129. On taking personalized ads personally (27 March 2015)
  130. Because freedom matters (26 March 2015)
  131. Thoughts on tracking-based advertising (18 February 2015)
  132. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  133. We’re all going to need clothes (18 December 2014)
  134. Privacy is personal (2 July 2014 in Linux Journal)
  135. Time for digital emancipation (27 July 2014)
  136. Why to avoid advertising as a business model (25 June 2014, re-running Open Letter to Meg Whitman, which ran on 15 October 2000 in my old blog)
  137. Earth to Mozilla: Come back home (12 April 2014)
  138. We are not fish and advertising is not food (23 January 2014 in Customer Commons)
  139. Beyond the advertising bubble (12 October 2013 in Customer Commons)
  140. What the ad biz needs is to exorcize direct marketing (6 October 2013)
  141. Thoughts on Privacy (31 August 2013)
  142. Bringing manners to marketing (12 January 2013 in Customer Commons)
  143. What could/should advertising look like in 2020, and what do we need to do now for this future? (Wharton’s Future of Advertising project, 13 November 2012)
  144. Browsers should have been cars. Instead, they’re shopping carts. (22 September 2012)
  145. An olive branch to advertising (12 September 2012, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  146. Inkwell: Authors and Artists -Topic 451: Doc Searls, The Intention Economy, an online conversation in The Well (15-21 August 2012)
  147. After Facebook Fails (23 May 2012)
  148. Stop making cows. Quit being calves. (21 February 2012)
  149. For personal data, use value beats sale value (13 February 2012)
  150. A sense of bewronging (2 April 2011)
  151. The Data Bubble II (30 October 2010)
  152. The Data Bubble (31 July 2010)
  153. After the advertising bubble bursts (23 March 2009)
  154. Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble (31 October 2008)
  155. The Because Effect and the Demise of Advertising. P2P Foundation (17 September 2008, and excerpted from Toward a New Ecology of Journalism, posted on 12 September 2007)

42 responses to “People vs. Adtech”

  1. […] The Adblock War Series, now with its own page and 41 entries long. […]

  2. […] on  Doc Searls’ site, the “adblock-war series” … interesting thing …’s a list of links (mostly chronologically ordered) about various info sources and articles Doc’s been involved with …)   How can I keep […]

  3. Joseph Ratliff Avatar
    Joseph Ratliff

    These could almost be collected into a book of essays titled the same way this post is “The Adblock Wars.”

    Perhaps a PDF with all these collected, at minimum (links included). But even a paperback would be nice (self-published).

  4. […] to work very well at this point. That comes with maturity and an inevitable rebalancing. Searls may rail against digital, just like people railed against television, the telephone and horseless carriages.  But it’s […]

  5. I wrote this in a comment under the Bermuda Response Triangle of Advertising piece (above) that pinged here…

    Several points.

    First, I have no problem with “digital.” We live in a digital world now. (I’ve written about this a lot. One sample:

    Second, there are plenty of places where “the relatively benign and balanced model of advertising laid out by Searls” does still exist. Examples include all of print, all of commercial radio, live broadcast TV (especially sports) and the parts of digital where ads aren’t direct response marketing, cloaked as advertising. (For more on the differences, see

    Third, if by “more accountable and effective models” you mean tracking-based adtech, there are many (including some in the business) who would beg to differ. These three pieces in the Financial Times…

    * It does not pay for advertisers to narrow their targets too much
    * Consumer fightback against online marketing is ramping up
    * How the Mad Men lost the plot

    … lay out the case pretty well. So does ample research on the privacy concerns of individuals. (Many reports by TRUSTe and others say 90%+ of people surveyed are at least concerned for their privacy—especially being tracked like animals online).

    Fourth, a sleight-of-meaning takes place in claims that an “exchange” is happening when people merely put up with something they don’t like when they get something they do. “Exchange” implies a conscious and willing action. That’s not what’s happening with mere acquiescence. (For more on that, Annenberg has a good study on what it calls “The Tradeoff Fallacy”:

    Fifth, I totally agree that we’re in a “disruptive wave.” For that wave, full credit should be given to individuals, in the hundreds of millions, choosing of their own free will to block ads and tracking in their own private spaces, such as their browsers. This amounts to the biggest boycott in human history (see To blame that boycott (as does, for example, the IAB) on the companies providing the prophylactics, is pure misdirection. Individuals are taking a lead in this thing, and it would be best to respect where they are going with it. (For a long list of those places, see It sounds to me like you are among those individuals when you say “We will fight back by blocking the hijacking of our attention.” If so, I salute that, and hope you will join our efforts at ProjectVRM ( to solve market problems not just with better marketing, but with better tools on the customers’ side.



  6. adblock is really destroying the new generations limits. I have been using advertising from long time..its like hands are tied now. once you can’t generate money with your blog or website ..peoples will stop adding new content and it will lead to loss of information technology

  7. Nice! These could almost be collected into a book of essays titled the same way this post is “The Adblock Wars.”

  8. […] called “adtech.” I have been an enemy of adtech from its start, and for years have led in the movement to kill it. I’ve done that through my work with ProjectVRM and its spinoff Customer Commons […]

  9. […] The fact is people really love with a innovation called ad blocking, Apple also developed that in your Safari, my inspiration for these cases came from Doc Searls Weblog. […]

  10. The issue our industry faces with ad tech is a considerable measure like the issue with gun control. gun control are extraordinary instruments. They are exceptionally helpful in the event that you need to shoot a deer or ensure your home. In any case, with no directions and a mess of terrible folks out there who might overlook them regardless of whether they existed we end up with a circumstance where weapons are all over the place, from the hands of the ultra-dependable to the hazardously messy to the out and out criminal.

  11. Predicted a long time ago. I am commenting with a browser that blocks advertisements by default. Soon everyone will catch on.

  12. […] journalism to win, we need a new alignment of incentives. In many posts here I’ve suggested that a return to #SafeAds —real advertising that’s not based on tracking […]

  13. […] And I have faith in the eventual alignment of incentives between journalism and its funding sources. That will happen after the inevitable moment when what’s left of responsible publishing cringes in shame at having participated in adtech’s inexcusable surveillance business—and reports on it thoroughly. Getting publishers to do that has long been one of my fights. Keep up with it here. […]

  14. […] Irony alert: the black banner atop that last story says, “We use cookies to offer you a better browsing experience, analyze site traffic, personalize content, and serve targeted advertisements.” Notes the Times‘ Charlie Warzel, “Devoted readers of the Privacy Project will remember mobile advertising IDs as an easy way to de-anonymize extremely personal information, such as location data.” Well, advertising IDs are among the many trackers that MIT Technology Review is injecting in readers’ browsers with every visit.  (Bonus link.) […]

  15. […] Another irony here is that these pubs don’t need to track us. I’ve explained why that’s the case, often and at length, in posts, essays, articles and talks listed here: . […]

  16. […] bothered to listen back then, it might not be dealing today with the GDPR, the CCPA, and the earned dislike of […]

  17. […] personally (and I’ve been writing about) —privacy, identity, fintech, facial recognition, advertising, journalism—have easy answers to their problems, much less final […]

  18. So does ample research on the privacy concerns of individuals.

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  20. Great informative post. Thanks in advance.

  21. Yes i am totally agreed with this article and i just want say that this article is very nice and very informative

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  25. Nice! These could almost be compiled into a book of essays titled “The Adblock Wars,” as this post is.

  26. […] take a look at People vs. Adtech, and/or Separating Advertising’s Wheat and […]

  27. I agree with Doc Searls that ad blocking is a necessary response to the problems of online advertising. I’ve been using an ad blocker for years, and I’ve found that it has made my web browsing experience much more enjoyable. I no longer have to worry about intrusive ads, security risks, or privacy concerns. Blog:

  28. How can we use AI such as Chatgpt for our advantage to block online ads? Most of these ads are spam.

    1. That’s the frontier.

  29. […] The Trade Desk “specializes in real-time programmatic marketing automation technologies, products, and services, designed to personalize digital content delivery to users.” Translation: surveillance-based and privacy-hostile ad targeting, which we’ve been hating in the online world at least since 2008. […]

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