False equivalencies in the anti-ad debate

Outrage has set its sights on a straw man

I agree that user data should be anonymized, for reasons I’ve covered ad nauseum. That’s very important; that’s the fight we should all be fighting. That aside, I cannot understand the anti-advertising backlash — treating digital ads like they’re fundamentally ‘violating some social contract.’

The ad-based business model is what provides for many of the free internet resources we enjoy. They’re responsible for massive consumer surplus. Although, of course, the economic argument alone isn’t sufficient justification.

So, also consider how digital ads are a different animal than their analog predecessors. Print ads for newspapers, for example, once provided supplemental revenue — pure, substantial profit for publishers who could turn operating profits based on subscription revenue alone. By your logic, Doc, that’s more of a social contract violation than anything today, because consumers didn’t have the option to avert their attention to another producer: for the most part, newspapers operated monopolies or duopolies, and their stuffing ad inventory was abusive of their de facto captive audience, like your sister.

In contrast, digital content today has no barrier-to-entry, therefore it’s abundant, giving consumers unlimited choice — infinite options for averting our attention to whomever deserves it. So, if our user experience is forsaken by disservices like ads or tracking, we have the free will and good fortune to switch to alternatives.

Accordingly, publishers are incentivized to optimize the user experience, because abundance means there’s perfect substitution. When digital goods are both free and fungible, this infinite supply can only compete over finite demand on the basis of user experience. That’s the only criteria that differentiates one commodity from another. Thus, the fact that you find this advertising epidemic so ubiquitous should tell you something: it’s necessary to sustain this crucial infrastructure.

Hypothetically, if Bloomberg News provides peerless coverage you can’t live without, well, then they’re differentiated in your eyes. They provide you a valuable service, so you can either tolerate their annoying ads or settle for the next best alternative.

That is capitalism: providing a valuable service and monetizing it. Where there’s attention, there’s advertising. That’s the way it is, always and everywhere — with the exception of communist states.

Furthermore, in 2017, cookies are indeed a part of mainstream consciousness. These are populist issues you’re discussing — no longer a dark secret being withheld from the public eye. (FWIW, Javascript bloat that exposes users to malware is a gross violation of the social contract that various sites and platforms enable at their discretion — to the detriment to user experience. Accordingly, due to abundance and perfect substitution, users will switch and the bar will be raised.)

More importantly, there are other, grosser atrocities that deserve more of our moral outrage. For example, credit cards do far more to violate our privacy, tracking us far more pervasively and far more discreetly:

Perhaps you’d prefer a subscription-based standard, which I can understand. A lot of content is moving behind paywalls and subs as we speak, and that’s great, especially for the producers whose differentiated products fit that model. As I’m sure you’d readily admit, there is no free lunch.

It’s important to get this straight, because choking-off the internet’s lifeblood threatens the sustainability of the free and open web. These things are contingent upon one another: advertising and access. Let’s leave the free and open web alone; leave much of the world’s information where it is, at all of our fingertips. Again, I’m a proponent of anonymized data. Beyond that, if your attention or your experience are so besieged, then pay for the privilege. You can prefer a world of scarcity — finite content in a walled garden — just don’t trample the creative commons.

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