Our online advertising model fails have put us all in danger

Filed Under: Featured, Social networks

Pig. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.We don't like paying for things. No point in handing over hard-earned cash for something when we can get the same thing for free, we think.

It seems like a no-brainer, but our unwillingness to pay for things directly has led the internet into a dark and dangerous corner where a dependence on advertising is putting our privacy and security on the line.

Ads life

Since the beginning of the internet, we've been trained to expect not to pay to access anything we want online.

At the start, everything put up there was free for all. That collaborative, open-source vibe has lingered on from those early days, and somehow still holds, despite somewhat belated efforts by content creators to monetize their work.

But the backdrop has changed beyond recognition. The internet is no longer populated with geeks, hobbyists and academics, but has become a centre of everyone's commercial and social worlds.

Any business with hopes of interacting with the rest of the world has an online presence, and anyone with goods or services to sell wants to get their message out to people as they gaze at their screens.

This desire for visibility has led to ever-growing spending on online marketing and advertising.

In the beginning, it wasn't much of a problem, and allowed smaller sites to generate a little funding without much effort, encouraging more people to contribute and adding to the diversity of the internet.

But we never really figured out a better approach for a more commercial online world. Having got used to free content, we baulked at paywalls, subscriptions and service charges.

The absence of simple, dependable and universal systems for making small payments didn't help here, and the growing threat of malware and data leaks also added to our wariness when it came to handing over our financial info to the internet's all and sundry.

Cash. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.So advertising bedded itself in as the main source of funding for the web, and drew in ever more marketing cash.

On the back of it, the likes of Google and Facebook became financial giants through their huge PII-farming operations, harvesting all the information they can about us to sell on to advertisers that demand ever more specific targeting of their wares.

Ad nauseum

This in itself has led to numerous worries over how nicely these big firms deal with our data, but to an extent these are manageable fears - we know who Google and Facebook are, we can pressure them to behave better, and when it comes down to it we can simply avoid their services if we don't like them.

The rest of the web is much more murky. The bulk of online advertising goes through complex chains of ad distribution networks, with the tiny per-click or per-view fees paid by the original company trying to market itself somehow managing to support multiple middlemen.

These invisible chains have become a standard target for scammers and criminals, who sneak malicious links into the chain and get them placed on popular sites, compromise end user systems en masse to hijack clicks or place their own ads, or simply build automated bots to fake clicks and earn unwarranted affiliate fees.

A few weeks ago, a US Senate subcommittee highlighted the growing danger of malvertising, and proposed some approaches to curbing the proliferation of complex ad networks which can lead to all sorts of nasties, mainly centering around better processes for choosing which ads are shown by websites.

But is it too late to change this? So many firms, both legitimate and dodgy, are so dependent on the affiliate pay-per-click system that rooting it out completely will require a major step-change in internet culture.

Ad where?

It's not just websites that are funding themselves with advertising, of course. Marketers, and scammers, have always been quick to take advantage of any new technology which can put their message in front of new eyes.

When email emerged as a popular communication vector, commercial spam quickly appeared too, closely followed by others abusing the system to make money from bulk mailing, and of course to spread malware and make money more directly from victims. They flooded our inboxes to such an extent that, for several years now, people have been questioning the viability of email as a usable tool.

Deals. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.The development of smart phones and the app culture that goes with them has also been taken over by advertising, with numerous small-time apps building in third-party ad libraries, which bring their own raft of privacy and security risks.

On desktops, a similar model has been around for a long time. Quality software can cost serious money, and for most purposes free tools can be found by determined searching.

More entrepreneurial hobbyists, and smaller software houses, quickly saw a way around our unwillingness to pay directly for our stuff by including - yes you guessed it - advertising in their products.

Again there were privacy issues, and again scammers and more aggressive ad purveyors found ever sneakier ways of getting onto our systems.

Distribution networks sprang up with their own complex arrangements of affiliate fees, encouraging the foisting of unwanted software on more and more victims.

Nowadays much of the "free" software economy funds itself by using deliberately confusing, if not actually deceptive, language in their downloader or installer packages, tricking people into accepting multiple additional items alongside whatever it was they really wanted.

These "optional" extras feature hidden or ineffective uninstall processes, concealed source information, and of course either in-your-face advertising or aggressive pushes to upgrade "freemium" software.

Ads blocked

Last month, Microsoft proposed a set of rules covering dodgy adware, in an effort to force developers of ad-supported software to play nice with their users.

These rules, due to come into force in July, require software to include proper uninstallation, clear labeling of what it is and who made it, and - of course - clarity over the fact that it is indeed ad-supported.

Once these rules come into force in Microsoft's own security tools, running by default in newer versions of Windows and considered a minimal "baseline", it will make it much easier for all security vendors to simply block offending items without fears of legal action from their "legitimate" developers.

Of course, business-focused solutions have always had more freedom to block such software, which is rarely appropriate for business purposes. But a change in the ecosystem should benefit us all, reducing the problem of foistware at least a little.

What's really needed is a major change in attitude though. We need to learn the value of paying directly for what we use where possible, to minimise our reliance on advertising and reduce its power as a model for scams and malware as well as less ethical marketers.

Of course, we want to avoid the apocalypse of a cash-up-front internet, but maybe we also need to start boycotting sites, apps and software that use overly aggressive or unattributed advertising.

We need to send a message that if people want to advertise to us online or on our devices, they need to do so in a responsible and appealing way.


Images of pig, deals and cash courtesy of Shutterstock.

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14 Responses to Our online advertising model fails have put us all in danger

  1. Anonymous · 155 days ago

    NO, I would not pay for on-line services such as Facebook in exchange for no advertising. Because it would only be a matter of time before the advertising started creeping in again, but with users still being obliged to pay for the service.

    I wonder how many people are old enough to remember that when Cable TV was first introduced, the justification for "Pay TV" was that there would be no commercials. Look how long that lasted.......

  2. Ralph Haygood · 155 days ago

    All true. I'm currently developing an online communication service that will ask you to - gasp - pay actual money if you want your own space in which to post (you'll be able to comment on other people's posts without paying). I'm sure many people will scoff, but I'm betting there are more than enough people who feel as I do that most advertising is an annoying distraction at best and online advertising in particular has become a serious invasion of privacy.

    • LonerVamp · 154 days ago

      I think there would be interest in that if it solved several needs, was cool/hip/good, and still allowed heavy adoption via a free alternative. Otherwise, so many of these sites die for whatever reasons, either the pay model limited exposure, or the internal clique ruined it for everyone else, or poor administration and privacy transparency turned others away. Or, simply, other things came up and were cooler and more hip.

      For instance, I pay for EverNote, but there's no way I'd pay for an IM tool or Facebook.

      I do hate ads, though. I hate ads on radio, television, forced ads before bluray movies, ads on web sites, in the corners of apps. Having been around on the web since the explosion in the early 90s, I don't click ads, I don't respond to ads, I don't want ads, and I don't encourage ads. The online ad market is just not one that I think is sustainable. And I hate even more when companies don't use ads but instead surreptitiously gather info on what I do and sell that to ad companies. Thing is, I'd rather pay to avoid the info gathering than to avoid ads; I have a long history of avoiding ads now.

  3. ejhonda · 155 days ago

    "It seems like a no-brainer, but website owners' and ad networks' unwillingness to properly vet ads submitted to be displayed on websites has led the Internet into a dark and dangerous corner where a dependence on revenue, no matter the source, is putting our privacy and security on the line."

    Fixed it for you.

  4. Guitar Bob · 155 days ago

    Use a product like Adblock Plus, a free, open source browser helper which blocks obtrusive/tracking ads when you surf the internet.

    • Al-Kammy · 155 days ago

      the downside of which is that sites will start to refuse you content if you dial them up with adblock running - channel4.com will now not play on demand TV whilst ad's are blocked

      • That's why ad blockers have a white-list.

        • Al-Kammy · 154 days ago

          Given.... but my point was that any site that wishes to can discourage the use of adblock on thier domain. Thus adblock becomes useless if / when adblock-blocking becomes as ubiquitous as web ad's

          • Deramin · 154 days ago

            I really like that Adblock Plus introduced a program where advertisers can agree to play nice and bypass the filters. If a site tries to tell me that I don't have a choice and can't use an ad-blocker, fine, I don't need their site and their content. They have every right to alienate me as a customer.

            I have no problem at all with text ads or small still picture ads which are clearly labeled as such. But if I try to look at a website with a hundred bright flashing images and sounds and all that nonsense, it overloads my brain and I can't use the site. And I really despise ads that are deliberately deceptive in order to get clicks.

            Even in print, I don't mind narrow columns of small advertising like the New Yorker uses. I no longer give money to magazines that have so many ads I can't find the articles.

            I have tremendous respect for the folks that make Greenshot because of their stance on deceptive advertising and bundled installers. I wish more developers would be that responsible.

  5. Jim C · 155 days ago

    Good points in your article. I am afraid it may only be getting worse, I recall hearing that the click through rate on larger banners (the ones that take up 1/4 or more of your screen) is so much higher, that is why you are seeing more if them. For it to stop people need to stop clicking.

  6. Jake · 154 days ago

    Whoa, careful there, you dont want to mess with the advertisers. We live in a world where our "democratically elected" rulers bow down to big business and rich individuals, promising them whatever tax breaks, gov't contracts or law changes they want in return for party donation cash, just to pay for the ADVERTISING they need to get elected.

    Who's really running the world? Ad people, that's who. Be afraid.

  7. WouterG · 154 days ago

    For now, adblock and ghostery do their thing for me :)

  8. Ambianca · 153 days ago

    "What's really needed is a major change in attitude though. We need to learn the value of paying directly for what we use..."

    A courageous, almost heretical statement in today's world. And you stated it precisely right: there is great long-term value in paying for what we use. Alas, short-sighted people can't perceive that truth.

    Whatever Karl Marx originally meant, his message has been contorted into a mindset that believes it's "fair" that those who create the most value should carry those who create the least. That mindset has grown into a sense of entitlement so deeply entrenched that it's axiomatic in the world view of most of the human species.

    You're right that a major change in that attitude is needed, but it will take an education process that is more potent than the ongoing brainwashing that instilled the "Gimmee it all, right now, for free" attitude in the first place.

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About the author

John Hawes is Chief of Operations at Virus Bulletin, running independent anti-malware testing there since 2006. With over a decade of experience testing security products, John was elected to the board of directors of the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organisation (AMTSO) in 2011.