Is adblocking a boycott?

David Carroll

David Carroll looks at why adblocking is on the rise

It's been called the biggest boycott in human history; nearly 200 million people worldwide are now blocking online ads. Adblockers are browser extensions that prevent digital ads and trackers from loading. Trackers gather data about us through our browsing habits, and are used to target ads and record if we have viewed them. Advertisers only pay publishers when their ad loads into our field of view.

Adfraud is also becoming an increasingly concerning trend. This occurs when bots impersonate humans to buy and sell clicks through ad traffic networks.

The digital ad marketplace is rife with these vulnerabilities. This is partly because it's largely powered by JavaScript, but also because traffic data is automated and arbitraged through high-speed trading markets that are fragile and opaque. As a result, some industry observers are starting to wonder if the digital ad market has become subprime.

Fraudulent ad inventory is being bundled in with quality inventory. The impact on revenue is driving publishers to plant increasingly intrusive and invasive adtech on their pages, which in turn drives users to install adblocking software.

What caused it?

The experience of most ad platforms used by media buyers and publishers consists of data-driven dashboards. These interfaces encourage industry insiders to become fixated on traffic reports and conversion rates, with measures limited to the idea of an impression rather than accounting for users' attention and satisfaction. This promotes a degraded user experience that is irritating at best and harms our privacy at worst.

Many sites are now seeing adblocking rates that range between 10 and 50 per cent of their audiences. Unfortunately, a complex web of companies has built profitable businesses based on these flawed metrics, even turning a blind eye to revenue earned from fraudulent bots.

To resolve this misalignment, multiple players have to shift their bedrock measures while questioning their reasoning for increasingly tracking users. Can this rapidly eroding trust with consumers be restored before it's too late?

What's really at stake?

In Europe, adblocking rates are at least double that of the US. Some speculate this could be related to differing cultural attitudes about privacy: in the EU privacy protection for consumers is applied horizontally across the market, while the US's policy is split into specific vertical sectors.

The mostly US-based adtech industry vehemently opposes regulation, as well as initiatives like the Do Not Track standard proposed to allow people to opt out of privacy-invasive tracking.

The industry insists that it gives users a mechanism to control their privacy but this requires us to carefully read volumes of obfuscated legalese in policies. Then we're expected to laboriously configure a cookie-based opt-out program that is inherently insecure. Installing an adblocker, by contrast, involves a few clicks.

There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about our privacy. Researchers are discovering how much of our browsing and mobile data is leaked to unknown third parties. Think about how searching for health-related content on the web can be appended to a personally identifiable profile without our knowledge.

In the US, the FBI is now barred from tracking suspects' browser histories without a warrant. Then what prevents governments from purchasing data about users from consumer data-brokers that embed their trackers on the sites we browse? Adblockers.

This article was originally published in netmag issue 277.

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David Carroll is an associate professor of media design at Parsons School of Design, where he teaches graduates building the near future.