Ten years ago, I moved out of my parents’ house. The first thing I bought was a NO/NO sticker, which people in the Netherlands can put on their letterboxes to indicate they’re not interested in junk mail. I put it on mine with a happy smile. Isn’t that wonderful, I thought, having the power to decide how many paper commercial messages I get in the mail, and what commercial messages I want to expose my grey matter to. I don’t want any digital advertisements, either. My ad blocker has been taking care of that for years now. Until recently that made me part of a minority of users, but thanks to the advertisement industry and online publishers, ad blockers aren’t just for nerds and geeks any more.
‘Nowadays the motto of the publishers and their advertisers seems to be “loud, showy and intrusive”‘
Digital advertisements aren’t what they used to be. In the past, relatively subtle advertisements and websites used to complement one another, but nowadays the motto of the publishers and their advertisers seems to be “loud, showy and intrusive”. Internet users without a digital NO/NO sticker now have to wade through pop-up ads with simple tricks to lose weight, prizes for every 100,000th visitor, hot singles and advertisement videos that start playing on their own.
While paper advertisements are still just waste paper, online advertising is now also used as an excuse to spy on you and to build up a grand super profile of you by tracking your online activity. Who you are, what you want, what you do, what you think: it’s all in there. A clever advertising spy will know you better than you know yourself. Unlike a leaflet in the mail, that’s not harmless at all. It’s a small step from predicting what brand of car you’re interested in to manipulating your thoughts by selectively censoring your search results, or discriminating against you by charging you more for a night at a hotel than your less wealthy neighbour.
In order to deal with this shift from harmless advertising to spying, the Dutch House of Representatives urged the advertising industry to let people have an easy way to opt out once and for all. A self-regulation approach. But there wasn’t much response, and years later, there was still no sign of a way to prevent being tracked. This is what we owe our widely praised and commented-upon ‘cookie law’ to. This is a law that was instated in order to give internet users a choice in whether or not they can be tracked, but the publishers and the advertising industry managed to turn this to their advantage too: instead of giving users a fair choice, they introduced the concept of ‘cookie blackmail’ to nearly all major websites, forcing you to agree to let them track you or else you’re not allowed to use the website at all. And so we were further back than square one.
By now, a website has been launched where you can opt out of being tracked. Or so it seems, anyway: do you know where to find it? That’s another clever strategy, of course: never mentioning the existence of an opt-out page and keeping it hidden away in some dark corner of the internet.
But in spite of the cookie blackmail, super profiles and hidden-away opt-out pages, the users are gaining the upper hand this year, partly thanks to Apple. Ad blockers and tracking blockers have been available for laptops and computers for years, but now they’re finally available for smartphones and tablets as well, a fact that made all the papers. The advertising industry, with its aggressive advertisements, its spying practises and its total disregard for the wishes of the internet user, only has itself to blame for the fact that the usage of ad blockers has increased tenfold during the past year — ad blockers that never would have been invented if they’d just given users an easy way to opt out of being tracked and to filter annoying advertisements.
The advertising industry seems to have been defeated, and it’s taking free websites with news and games down with it. But let’s be honest: it was about time. Most of the websites supported by advertising have nothing worthwhile to contribute to the internet anyway. I’m talking about those sites that just copy news stories from each other and get their visitors by spamming our timelines on Twitter and Facebook with clickbait (titles whose only purpose is to catch our attention and get us to click on them). They’ll be the first to go.
This presents a great opportunity for quality websites like The Guardian, which now finally offer their visitors the option to simply pay for an ad-free website, or like the site of the Dutch newspaper NRC which now limits its valuable content to users with a subscription or with Blendle credit.
Finally we can just pay money for a good product on the internet too. And if enough people start using ad blockers, then maybe after all these years of exploitation, we can get the super spies Facebook and Google to start treating us like proper paying customers too.