Are We Obliged To Load and View Ads on Web Pages?

The Parable of the TV Store

Imagine a TV store that makes money in two ways: selling sets and showing programming. Their store is very comfortable, and they invite people in to watch unlimited shows. The only proviso is that those entering the store have to fill out a survey. There's a lengthy disclosure statement you can ask for, but it's not part of the form. Ads are shown during programming. Sometimes, people buy TV sets, but they're mostly there watching TV.

Also, there may be hidden cameras, which you may or may not be told about. These cameras may record your behavior. And you might be chipped as you leave the store without your knowledge (there's a tiny label on the chip if you find it and get a magnifying glass) that tracks your visits to many different stores with the same business model.

A clever person invents a workaround: it's an invisibility cloak. When worn, you can enter the store and watch all the programming. You never really plan to buy a set at the store, and you walk away during most or all of the ads shown during shows. The store can't count you in their ad sales, which reduces their primary revenue.

Eventually the store seems mostly empty, and it changes its model: if you want to watch TV, you have to become a paid member. Other stores try different plans, like marching everyone out of the TV viewing area into a special advertising room every half hour to watch a special sponsorship message. Still others stores have an invisibility cloak detector at the doorway, and bar those wearing them, but the cloaks keep improving as do the detectors.

Some similar operations that existed before the TV ad/sales shops note that their policy of handing those entering a slick, simple ad flyer every once in a while was less intrusive and resulted in more sales for the advertiser, too, but they admit not every store has the right kind of customers to move into the ad-flyer business.

Many stores go bankrupt. Programming options decrease. And people wearing invisibility cloaks say, "Booooooo."

Implicit Contracts

As someone who has made and continues to make part of his living from advertising, either paid directly to me or in the form of publications that earn money that way paying me fees, I have many feelings about the new content blockers in iOS 9. I've written several stories for Macworld about them: details of how they work, how to use them, and how to target and block popover nagging boxes.

At various times I've:

  • Edited and, for a large part of its run, owned a publication that was founded on the principle of subscriber-only support—no ads. (The Magazine, developed and founded by Marco Arment.) It didn't thrive, so I shut it down while it was still well ahead of expenses, because I found no way to retain and attract subscribers faster than I lost them.
  • Run a web site that benefited hugely from relatively simple banner ads (via what was then Federated Media), direct sponsorships, newsletter ads, and Google Adsense. That was Wi-Fi Networking News, which formed a nice part of my living from 2001 to 2007.
  • Been a writer since 1994 for publications that receive a combination of subscription revenue and advertisements in print and online editions.
  • Run podcasts, like The New Disruptors, that were funded mostly from sponsorships, but a little from patronage (through Patreon).
  • Run four Kickstarter campaigns, two successfully. The two that funded raised nearly $65,000 together.
  • Planning a new publication that doesn't rely on ads, but may have sponsorships.
  • Was a plaintiff in an EFF lawsuit in the early 2000s in which I and other consumers were fighting for an affirmative right for timeshifting (skipping through programs, including skipping ads with smart technology) and spaceshifting (recording and watching programming where we chose). That we fought for this seems absurd today.

You can see my position isn't clear. I benefit from, reject, and fight to reject ads!

I've taken at times a devil's advocate position on Twitter in discussing it this week. When people ask if they're justified blocking ads and other material from a site they visit, I say: No. Instead, you're justified in leaving the site, deleting your cookies, and never returning again.

That lacks nuance, but it's also true from the strictest position. If you don't want to use a site as it's intended, then simply don't use the site. However, that's not the deal as it's presented by most web sites.

When you first arrive at a site, the European Union requires for visitors in its territory at least that a cookie warning message appears if browser cookies are used to track or identify you. That's not a requirement in any other major jurisdiction, although you often see this message outside the EU.

But sites don't otherwise provide a clickthrough agreement. Without an explicit set of terms that guides what our use of their resources—their servers feed us pages, them letting us load copyright-licensed assets on some basis in our browsers—is supposed to be, the offer only implicit rules.

Visitors can establish all sorts of reasons in their heads about what those implicit rules are. Unless a site makes its version of those terms and conditions explicit and requires affirmative consent, it would be exceedingly difficult to make a case that the terms apply.

Logically, we could assume that a site that offers advertisements does so on the basis of earning revenue that allows it to operate. Ethically, once we are aware of that, we are obliged to make a moral decision: either to subvert the basis on which we can reasonably assume the implicit contract stands, or to accept it. If we cannot tolerate the ads and invisible tracking, we should then leave; if we can, we load everything. Any other course is potentially unethical, even if we can justify it to ourselves.

But that assumes further that we have been disclosed with perfect knowledge every bit of JavaScript code and every image tracker and every site database and third-party database used in relationship to us when we visit a site, along with what information about us is being recorded, how it will be retained, how to opt out initially, and how to get the information removed later.

Because all of those arrangements aren't disclosed on our arrival the first time (or ever), and require substantial hunting or the installation of a third-party desktop extension, like Ghostery, to assemble, can we be said to be bound by them? The implicit agreements there take way, way too much from us without informed and affirmative consent. It's an unequal relationship.

Further, sites using one or more third-party networks rarely know all the details of how information about their visitors will be used. Multiply that by dozens—I had 76 different remote items load on a recent visit to a major media site for which I write—and there's zero possibility the sites you visit truly comprehend the impact on your privacy and security.

Add one more element on top: networks that allow self-service advertising purchases, which is most of them, can leak malware onto visitors' computers. Given that there will also be exploits, the ability to push out scripts through ad networks always poses a threat unless it's reviewed ahead of time—and even then, it's impossible to know in many cases.

How Can You Comply If You Don't Know the Terms?

Let me revisit the headline, then: are we obliged to load and view ads?

  • We don't know precisely what a site expects from us when we visit.
  • We don't know how all of our information that is obtained merely by visiting a page will be used.
  • Very few sites could possibly know what the impact of the combination of what they're installing will be on visitors.
  • Ad networks have allowed malware on in the past.
  • Sites are almost never blocking visitors who block loading ads and other elements. (Some are starting to warn or block visitors.)

What I'd propose is that it's legitimate for a site to expect you accept what is visible (static ads with links with tracking embedded only for clicks) and disclosed on first arriving, but not feed out a bit of hidden code or retain anything about you until you are informed and accept the terms.

Related to the EFF lawsuit, Turner Broadcasting's CEO made a ridiculous statement to a trade publication: that "there was a certain amount of tolerance for going to the bathroom." That was a very legalistic way to say that, of course, people didn't need to be plastered to a TV. But his next statement had more insight and was lost: if you create a formal algorithm designed specifically to skip the advertising interval, you're "stealing" the programming.

However, just as with online ads, viewers never accepted those terms, nor did the broadcast and cable industry ever present an agreement of that sort to viewers. Because no one would sign it and it's unenforceable.

Given that web sites don't want to pause your experience by presenting you with a license to accept, they're in an ambiguous situation in asking you to accept tacitly everything they do.

John Bergmayer has a great rundown of the legality of ad blocking: your use of a site is a license, not a contract; a contract requires parties to agree on the exchange of value; and ad-blocking tools likely are perfectly legal because they have substantially non-infringing purposes.

Seems like an impasse, no?

This is all separate from the reality: Users are blocking in huge numbers on the desktop (about 50% of regular online newsreaders in America and 40% in the UK, according to a Reuters Institute survey [PDF]). The same will slowly phase in via mobile. All ads are being treated equally by most visitors, blocking static, non-code-based ones, as well as the most egregious.

Some sites will die. Others will adapt and thrive. But a great change is upon us, because the questions I pose above were never properly addressed over 20 years of commercial editorial web site business development. Even sites that have the highest standards for ads and the least amount of user tracking—or even none—will pass through the same cleansing fire on the way to the next business model.

Viruses of the Mind (1996)

A colleague wrote recently after trying to find a column I'd written long ago for Adobe Magazine called "Eternal September," about how AOL letting everyone into Usenet newsgroups created the same conditions as each August and September when students arrived at universities and gained access for the first time to the worldwide discussions then taking place. I dug around and found this gem from the June/July 1996 issue, introducing people to memes—and doxing!

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The Value of an Editor

I wrote a round-up of reviews of Google's new OnHub Wi-Fi router today for TidBITS, as I (and TidBITS) didn't get a review unit, but I like to help people make informed decisions about purchasing new gear, especially Wi-Fi stuff. The reviews are mixed, but it's pretty clear the unit isn't fully baked. And Wi-Fi routers are tough to test fairly beyond some built-in features; testing coverage and performance (actual data throughput) requires lots of devices, moving equipment around, and having identical tests in the same circumstances with other base stations. Only a few of the reviewers were able to do that.

It was clear that reviewers who did more thorough testing were finding less to like because of inconsistent performance and behavior. In my original draft, I wrote:

The reviewers who apparently tested coverage and features the least had the best things to say about the router, as well as the converse.

My old friend and dear editor Adam Engst made a revision:

The reviewers who seemingly tested coverage and features the least had the best things to say about the OnHub; those who performed more complete tests were the least impressed.

Much sharper! It's the same sentiment and the same conclusion, but spelling out the converse makes the whole thing snap.

My friend, former boss, and coffee aficionado Marco Arment linked to the article, singling out that phrase:

I'm still cry-laughing over his reaction! It's high praise and I appreciate it tremendously! But I also thought it was a good thing to share the love with Adam, and demonstrate what a good editor brings to the table, even for what seems like a casual statement of fact.

Interview Advice for Those New to Reporting

My dear friend Swoozy has started out on her writing career, and was preparing to interview someone for a focused piece related to sex education. She asked for my advice, and I wound up writing up a fair amount for someone who wasn't trained in being a journalist, but has good instincts for representing someone else accurately.

I just kept adding to this and structuring it, and thought it was worth sharing, as I couldn't find anything that was quite as focused on how to interview people for a written article (print or online). Most of the advice is a basis for podcasting and in-person interviews, too. I've now published it at Medium, where you can chip in with comments or advice.

A New Economy Discovered in My Own House: Derrick Dollars

Derrick dollars in production.

As a business reporter, I’m always looking for unique economic angles in the new economy. Recently, while walking through my house, I encountered a new economy worker producing a form of scrip for an economy I was unaware of, denominated in Derrick dollars. Here’s the interview, published with the subject’s consent.

Glenn: Who makes Derrick dollars?

Rex (age 8): Any valid Derrick dollar worker. You need a membership card to create valid Derrick dollars.

G: What is Derrick’s role in Derrick dollars?

R: First in command. There are commands. The reason people make Derrick dollars for him is to get higher in command. By the time I finish all of these I am absolutely certain he will rank me second in command

G: What do you get for being higher in command?

R: It means if Derrick is not at school, if you are second in command, you are in charge. If you’re lower rank, you’re trying to be higher, because a lot of people have to be out of school for you to be in charge.

G: Is there any limit to the number of Derrick dollars that can be created?

R: No, you’re trying to create as many as possible to go up higher in rank.

G: That would cause inflation. Each dollar would seem to be worth less if you create more of them.

R: Not really.

G: What can you use Derrick dollars for?

R: To buy anything that’s being sold for Derrick dollars.

G: What is being sold for Derrick dollars?

R: Dudeize cards, paper crafts, chompies (they’re those things that can chomp on things).

G: What are Dudeize cards?

R: They’re cards that have Dudeize members names on them, and pictures on them.

G: Who are Dudeize members?

R: Members of the Dudeize soccer team. It is a soccer team at school.

G: So you can create as many Derrick dollars as you want?

R: That’s true, but there is a limit to how many Derrick dollars members can spend from the Derrick dollars members they make. They have to turn all their Derrick dollars in. They get a paycheck from Derrick.

G: Derrick is the central bank?

R: He’s the first in command.

G: Does he ever destroy Derrick dollars?

R: Sometimes he says they are too big or too small. But that doesn’t matter to me, because I just put them in his desk and afterwards he doesn’t notice.

G: People are making Derrick dollars, giving Derrick the Derrick dollars, Derrick chooses how much to pay his workers in Derrick dollars, and the only thing Derrick dollars buy are paper crafts?

R: True, people are making Derrick dollars and giving them to Derrick. But anything that is going to be sold for Derrick dollars — most commonly they are paper crafts — but anything that is being sold for Derrick dollars can be paid for with Derrick dollars.

G: Who is making things for purchase with Derrick dollars?

R: Robert, the Dudeize team, and a lot of other people.

G: So you make Derrick dollars for rank?

R: Second in command gets the highest paycheck. You get the paycheck each day depending on how many you turn it. If you turn in 10 and you’re fourth in command, you get one for your paycheck; if you make 10 and you’re second in command, you get five in your check.

G: Is this a stable system?

R: As I said before, you do need a Derrick dollars membership to produce valid Derrick dollars.

G: How do you get Derrick dollars membership?

R: You just have to sign up on the Derrick dollars sign up sheet.

G: Does he turn anybody down?

R: No, unless they’ve been known to be opposed to Derrick dollars.

G: Why would someone opposed to Derrick dollars sign up?

R: To spy on Derrick.

Space Gets Farther Away

New Horizons, bound for Pluto

New Horizons, bound for Pluto

This week's Economist features two articles by yours truly about SPACE — and humanity's shortened reach.

You see, in the 1990s, America's budgets were flush, and we funded a ton of projects to send probes and landers and orbiters and oh my all over the place. Those missions came to fulfillment through the 2000s, and even as budget tightened, the early funding helped carry through missions that might take 10 years to plan and then several years to reach their target.

So Cassini is currently still active around Saturn, New Horizons reaches Pluto next month, and Juno orbits satellite in 2016. But nearly all current NASA missions outside of Mars start winding down after that. And then nothing heads out very ambitiously until the early 2020s, when the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA separately send missions to Jupiter, arriving by 2030, under current plans.

My first story, The worlds beyond, explains how this came to pass, what funding is needed, and what's to come. The second, NASA’s dark materials, is about an almost footnote: without an adequate supply of plutonium-238, a non-weapons-grade isotope, humanity's grasp is very very small. We need Pu-238 to power missions of all sorts—until it's routine to put nuclear reactors on spacecraft, which will happen at some unknown future date.

You can find these articles online, or in this week's print issue.

Recent Glenn: Podcasts, Writing, and a Book!

In the spirit of collecting my work across many sites, here's the latest in Glenn!



  • Hey, I have a book! A Practical Guide to Networking and Security in iOS 8 is a guide through all issues with setting up and using networks and encryption/security options for your iPhone and iPad with step-by-step illustration instructions. I managed this revision myself, and since you read this far, you can get 25% off the $15 price for the ebook (no DRM, all major formats included) with coupon code E18CFOG.


Calculating Newtons: The Physics of Force with the New MacBook Connector

The MacBook that Apple unveiled on Monday has a single port. Many connections are gone, but the MagSafe power hookup is the one people are already mourning the most. But I wondered: what if this USB-C connection was designed for a quick pop-out if someone trips over the cord?

I talked to a consulting engineering, an aerospace engineer, a sci-fi author/computer-scientist with a deep scientific background, an industrial designer/manufacturer, and an astrophysicist. The answer? Well, the cable is probably not going to pop out (or shear off) before the laptop is dragged off a surface. But the physics of it are quite fascinating. You can read my whole account at Macworld.

Recent Writing and Podcasts (mid-January to late February)

On the heels of the news that I'll be writing (and talking) more about Macworld, here's a summary of recent articles and podcasts there and all over.



  • Macworld podcast #445: My first appearance as co-host! We talked about Google's updated Wallet offering with cell carriers, malware in hard drive firmware, solar farms and data centers, and new emoji.
  • Clockwise #75: Apple Car, government spying, Samsung spying, and Apple's greatest threats.

Big Hair to Fill

You may have heard that veteran Macworld staffer Chris Breen joined a fruit company in the Bay Area. (Raisins? Apricots?) Chris spent 30 years as writer, and nearly 20 at Macworld. With him gone, who would fill his big hair…I mean, shoes?

Who has two thumbs and eight other fingers and loves writing about Mac stuff? No, not Two Thumbs Eight Fingers McGee. (I hate that guy.) Me! Because I'm not in California, it didn't work out to take over his job. Instead, in addition to the security and privacy column I've written weekly for Macworld since late September, I'll be co-hosting the weekly Macworld podcast with executive editor Susie Ochs and other Macworld staff, and writing the Mac 911 column, where reader questions are researched and answered. You should subscribe to the podcast right now, shouldn't you?

It's a good shift for me, as a long-time senior contributor for Macworld. I've written…I don't know how many articles for Macworld. Hundreds? It'll be a pleasure to have more recurring gigs there, especially the podcast, as I've been trying to get back into regular audio work. (The podcast I launched with Christina Bonnington, Not Enough Time in the Week, has to go on hiatus, as there's too much of a topic overlap with what we'll be talking about in the Macworld podcast, sadly!)

What does this mean for my other writing? Oh, don't you worry. You'll still find me at Fast Company, the Economist, Boing Boing, and other publications. I have books in progress and a new one coming out this week on networking and security in iOS 8. With the funding nearly complete for The Magazine: The Complete Archives, a combination of my time and outside help will get that out the door by April.

And Old & New, my fresh periodical idea, will still launch as planned: as a blog with commissioned articles and a podcast. I'd always intended to launch it slowly but steadily, instead of all at once with the money and time commitment required for that.

It will be nice to have a solid anchor at Macworld, reducing the amount of time I spend pitching stories, many of which don't turn into assignments, and instead spend more time being productive in a way that benefits other people.