Internet Advertising (Part 2)

In my previous article on advertising, I explained the social contract of the Internet as we know it. That contract, if you need a reminder is: A content creator puts content on the Internet for a content consumer to view. When the contract consumer views the creator’s creation, he implicitly agrees to sell himself to a third party, outside the control of either the creator or the consumer. This third party then pays the content creator. I also explained how software like AdBlock Plus allows the content consumer to opt out of the social contract with the third party, a social contract the consumer never agreed to and often isn’t even aware of. In this article, I want to provide a few other reasons why you should be using software like AdBlock (I also strongly encourage the use of Ghostery, which blocks 3rd-party trackers from following you all over the Internet).

I realized earlier today that there’s another pretty common defense of internet advertising that usually comes up in debates on the subject, and that is the following: “If you don’t like the advertisements, just don’t look at them! It’s not like they’re hurting you!” I didn’t include this in my last post, because I think it’s a pretty weak argument. It’s an attempt to turn the debate back in your face with a “What’s your dang problem?” kind of attitude. But in fact, this argument, weak as it is, is even weaker by the fact that it’s dead wrong. Advertisements DO hurt you, in more ways than one. So for the rest of this post, I’m going to be discussing the ways that advertisements hurt you; each of these ways, even on a standalone basis, is a compelling reason to use ad-blocking software.

  • Internet advertisements are an extremely common vector for viruses and malware! Here’s the dirty secret that nobody wants you to know: content creators don’t have any control over what advertisments show up on their page! They tell you they do, but it’s only an “after-the-fact” control. In other words, an advertisment shows up that is bad for some reason, and the content creator can then say “Never show this ad again.” But that’s a losing game no matter how you look at it. Even if the content creators are trying to create a positive experience for their viewers (and many creators do), they’re just playing Whack-a-Mole. They’ll always be in second place. Advertisers will always have the upper hand in that game, and because it’s easy to make bad advertisments, somone will always do it.

    Now, some of the “bad” advertisments are going to be mundane. Maybe it’s an advertisment for a boring fantasy game that uses soft porn in their ads (even though the game has nothing to do with sex) to get people to click and play. Not very pleasant. Certainly not what you want on your screen when your boss walks in—or your child. But not the end of the world.

    But many advertisments are a lot worse. It’s common for advertisments to come bundled with malware and viruses that install themselves on your computer just because you visited the New York Times! Remember, content creators have no control over the advertisments that get placed on their page until it’s already too late.

    I don’t have any hard numbers here, but if I had to guess, I’d put advertisements as the number three way viruses get transmitted over the Internet (Numbers 1 and 2 being porn sites and illegal downloads, respectively). So start using AdBlock! It can save your computer—literally.

  • Advertisments make the Internet slower. See, there’s an arms race between advertisers and content consumers. Most advertising is unwanted. It’s annoying, we don’t care, it’s not relevant to what we’re looking at, etc. So people ignore it. But ignoring advertisments doesn’t make the advertising companies any money. So they make the advertisments bigger, because bigger things are harder to ignore. They make the advertisements play sound, because sound is difficult to ignore. They make advertisements flash and dance and pop up and jump all over your screen, because those things are hard to ignore. They make it so that to get to your content, you have to click through an ad first, because that’s impossible to ignore.

    But guess what—all of that stuff takes up bandwidth. It makes the page that you’re trying to load appear more slowly. And because many pages have a lot of advertisments on them, it can be a pretty serious, noticeable impact on your load speeds. This might not seem like a huge deal—after all, your Internet connection is a bajillion pesto-bits per second, but that’s not really true in a lot of the world. Even in the U.S., many people in rural areas have extremely slow internet connections—sometimes even still dial-up—and modern video and audio advertising can make page loads grind to a halt for these people. In essense, it makes the Internet unusable for them (remember what I said about the Internet being the world’s greatest equalizer, and how advertising is keeping that from happening?)

    Moreover, even if you don’t care about those people, if you believe the cable companies and ISPs, their tubes are getting clogged up. Granted, they’re pointing the finger at Netflix, and it’s certainly true that online video streaming takes the lion’s share of the bandwidth, but advertising certainly isn’t helping matters any.

    But the neat thing about AdBlock is that it cuts off the advertisment at the source—it makes it so that your computer literally does not ask for and load the advertisements, which means that if you’re dealing with a slow connection, installing AdBlock is a great way to instantly speed things up!

  • Advertisers are tracking your personal data. People are up in arms about recent revelations about privacy and the government. It’s always been confusing to me that they aren’t also up-in-arms about private companies, who have been doing exactly the same thing for at least a decade. See, advertisers install cookies on your computer which can track your browsing habits all over the internet. They track what you search for, the contents of the emails that you send, the websites you visit, which pages you like on Facebook, all of it. It hasn’t really ever come out, but I’m pretty sure that advertising companies (and intermediaries like Google) know so much about our individual lives that we would be mortified if it ever got out. These companies have some extremely bright mathematicians and computer scientists working for them to develop algorithms to learn as much as humanly possible about every single person on the planet, all so they can sell their crap better.

    Maybe you don’t care about that, though. Maybe you actually like that! Targeted advertising is actually a relatively appealing idea. If advertisers learn what you like and don’t like, they can only show you ads for things you like, and then your time isn’t wasted and you learn about new things that would benefit you! This is a valid viewpoint, and I understand why people take it, but there are two problems with it. The first is that people are complicated, and our algorithms and computational ability is not yet enough to meet the pipe dream of “only showing you the stuff you like and want to buy.” I don’t actually know for sure, but my guess is that that vision is still a long ways in the future.

    The second, and more troubling problem, is what happens to that data that’s collected by advertisers. Even if you believe the advertising companies are benevolent and only have your best interests in mind (a dubious proposition if I ever heard one), the recent hacks of Sony, Target, JP Morgan Chase, Apple, and many others, should have you a little worried.

    To my knowledge, none of the big advertising companies have been hacked yet, but that doesn’t mean anything at all. They will someday, probably sooner rather than later. It’s inevitable. And when that happens, do you still really want those companies to have all that data about you? I sure don’t.

  • Advertisements are distracting. This should come as no surprise to anyone, but it turns out that having blinky-flashy things on your page are distracting! It takes your attention away from the content that you are trying to actually view. Maybe it doesn’t make you click on something, but your brain has to spend energy filtering out the stuff that it doesn’t want to see so that it can focus on the stuff it’s interested in. I’ll be honest—I don’t actually have any idea how big of an effect this has on absorbing information from the page. Average people on the Internet claim that advertising is distracting, and there’ve been a host of recent studies that suggest that being forced to deal with lots of small choices throughout the day wears out our brains and makes us less effective. I’d be willing to bet that a similar effect is in play with advertisements. Our brains have to choose what is the important thing to pay attention to, and what is the unimportant thing that’s trying to distract you.

    I suspect that the impact of advertising on our effectiveness is non-negligible, particularly if you have a job that involves the Internet, technology, or learning. I wonder if it also has an impact on our health. But I don’t actually know. So take that for what you will

So there you have it: four big reasons why you should use AdBlock. Now, I should have mentioned in my last post that I don’t actually think people should work for free. I said that creative people will work for free, but the Internet has opened up a whole realm of new ways for people to make money and support themselves, and I actually think that’s a good thing! I just don’t think advertising is the perfect model for this, so in my final post on the subject coming later this week, I’ll discuss a few alternative models to advertising that are already starting to gain momentum, and why you should participate in these models and encourage their use.

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