By now hundreds of millions of people have gone to the privacy aisles of the pharmacy departments in their local app stores and chosen a brand of sunblock to protect themselves from unwanted exposure to the harmful rays of advertising online.

There are many choices among potions on those shelves, but basically they do one, two or three of these things:

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The most popular ad blocker, Adblock Plus, is configurable to do all three, but defaults to allow “acceptable” ads and not to block tracking. (Its opt-in tracking protection is also less than adequate.) Adblock Plus is also in the business of selling passage of “acceptable” ads to some sources (e.g. Criteo) that do tracking, and is now in the advertising business as well. This is at best confusing and worse than merely deceptive. It betrays the 100+million users who installed Adblock Plus originally to do what its name says.

Tracking protection products, such as Baycloud Bouncer, Ghostery, Privacy Badger and RedMorph, are not ad blockers, but are often mistaken for ad blockers by publishers. (That’s what happens for me, for example, when I’m looking at Wired through Privacy Badger.)

It is important to recognize these distinctions, for three reasons:

  1. Ad blocking, allowing “acceptable” ads, and tracking protection are three different things.
  2. Two of those things — ad blocking and tracking protection — directly answer obvious and clear market demand, and are therefore evidence of the marketplace at work.*
  3. The idea that there are “acceptable” ads is largely the notion of only one company (Adblock Plus) which defaults to allowing them, for obvious commercial purposes of their own. The assumption that people want ads from their “favorite brands” is also a myth told by marketers to themselves.

Meanwhile, nearly all press coverage of what’s going on here defaults to “publishers & advertisers vs. ad blockers.” This misdirects attention away from what is actually going on: people making choices in the open market to protect themselves from intrusions they do not want.

Ad blocking and tracking protection are effects, not causes. Blame for them should not go to the people protecting themselves, or to those answering demand for that protection, but to the sources and agents of harm. Those are:

  1. Companies producing ads (aka brands)
  2. Companies distributing the ads
  3. Companies publishing the ads
  4. All producers of unwelcome tracking

That’s it.

Until we shift discussion to the simple causes and effects of supply and demand, with full respect for individual human beings who choose to protect their sovereign personal spaces online, we’ll be stuck in war and sports coverage that misses the simple facts underlying the whole damn thing.

We also won’t be able to save those who pay for and benefit from advertising online. Which I am convinced we can do. I’ve written plenty about that already here.


* In the case of “acceptable ads,” the operative demand is from advertisers that pay to have their ads seen. For more on that, read Don Marti and Violet Blue.

Written by

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

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