Tag Archives: Google

How the ad-blocking wars threaten independent media

ad-blockersThe stakes in the raging battle over ad-blocking software are high — but they’re not quite what you might think.

On the surface, it all seems straightforward enough. In one corner are executives at struggling news organizations who want to be sure that visitors to their websites actually see the ads. Thus did the Washington Post recently experiment with blocking the ad-blockers, a development first reported by BuzzFeed.

“Many people already receive our journalism for free online, with digital advertising paying only a portion of the cost,” a Post spokesperson was quoted as saying. “Without income via subscriptions or advertising, we are unable to deliver the journalism that people coming to our site expect from us.”

In the other corner are users who are sick and tired of popups, pop-unders, scroll-across-the-screeners and other obstrusive ads that invade your privacy by tracking your interests and that, in some cases, carry spyware or malware.

“What is unlikely to fly as a long-term strategy is begging readers to load all of the 50 or so trackers and ad-loaders and popups and banners, each of which might make a publisher three cents per thousand clicks, if they are lucky,” writes Mathew Ingram at Fortune. “That business is in a death spiral, and yelling about ad blockers isn’t going to change that.”

In fact, the ad-blocking controversy is anything but a simple morality play. Nor is it a coincidence that the issue has reached a frenzied peak thanks to Apple’s decision to include ad-blocking in its iOS 9 software for iPhones and iPads. Because the real stakes are being fought not on the Internet but in the boardrooms of the giant tech companies that want to control your online experience.

Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Vergeexplained it last week. Essentially, it comes down to this: publishers that rely on web advertising are helping to drive revenue to Apple’s archenemy, Google, which controls much of the infrastructure for online ads. Block those ads and those publishers are more likely to run into the warm embrace of Apple, whose new Apple News platform provides a nice, safe, closed environment with ads that can’t be blocked. And Apple gets a 30 percent cut.

Facebook offers a similar service, the still-aborning Instant Articles, which allows publishers to post their content directly inside Facebook’s all-powerful newsfeed. As with Apple News, Facebook takes a cut of the action from the unblockable ads that will be displayed. It’s such an attractive proposition that the same Washington Post that’s trying to block the ad-blockers announced Tuesday that it will also publish 100 percent of its content to Facebook. Patel writes:

So it’s Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook, all with their own revenue platforms. Google has the web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone. This is the newest and biggest war in tech going today.

And the collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.

As a matter of principle, I refuse to use ad-blocking software — but I turned on AdBlock while researching this article just to see what would happen. As anyone could have told me, sites loaded more quickly and with fewer distractions. ESPN.com, which is so bogged down with ad-related bloatware that it’s become virtually unreadable, was zippier than I’ve ever seen it. A small hyperlocal site that I often visit suddenly appeared ad-free, simply because the site relies on an external ad-server business that AdBlock intercepted.

Interestingly enough, Marco Arment, the creator of the best-selling ad-blocking program Peace, pulled the software from Apple’s App Store almost as soon as it was released last week. “Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have,” he wrote on his blog. “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

By acting as he did, Arment may have pointed the way to a possible solution. Because the problems ad-blockers are designed to solve are real, and they run a lot deeper than mere inconvenience. As Dan Gillmor recently wrote in Slate, “The advertising and tracking industries, abetted by telecommunications carriers, are investing in all kinds of technologies aimed at thwarting users’ wishes to retain some control over their online activities.”

So why not come up with a different kind of blocker — a piece of software that informs you when you’re about to access a website that fails to follow some agreed-upon list of best practices regarding privacy and user experience?

Such an arrangement may be the best way to preserve independent media on the open web. Users would be able to protect themselves from abusive adware without freeloading. And web publishers who see their traffic drop might decide it’s time to change their ways.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org and in The Huffington Post.

Talking about data, journalism and the future

Brent Benson has written a thoughtful piece about Tuesday’s panel discussion on “Big Data and the Future of Journalism.”

I had the privilege of moderating a great panel comprising Laura Amico of Homicide Watch and WBUR Radio’s Learning Lab (she also teaches a journalism course at Northeastern); John Bracken of the Knight Foundation; Charles Kravetz, general manager of WBUR; and Paul McMorrow of CommonWealth Magazine and The Boston Globe.

The quote I’ll remember:

If you’d like to get a feel for how the discussion played out on Twitter, just click here.

Update: Catherine D’Ignazio of the MIT Center for Civic Media has posted a comprehensive live blog of the panel discussion.

Sandy and the power of news maps

Click on image for full interactive map at BostonGlobe.com

We were lucky up here on the North Shore — we got lots of wind and plenty of rain from Sandy, but very little damage. We lost power for about a half-hour last night. When it came back, it seemed that the worst had passed.

But then we tuned in to CNN and saw the devastation that was taking place in New York and New Jersey. The aftermath will be with us for a long time.

As it turns out, it’s mapping week in my Reinventing the News class. Although classes at Northeastern were canceled on Monday, I’ve been sharing with my students some of the more interesting storm presentations being put together by news organizations.

Above is a map you’ll find at BostonGlobe.com plotting all kinds of Sandy-related reports — everything from photos and stories by Globe journalists to power-outage announcements and updates from other news organizations. It uses Leaflet, a tool I’m not familiar with, and OpenStreetMap, an open-source alternative to the increasingly commercialized offerings of Google, Apple and Microsoft.

I have not been able to puzzle out why some red dots are larger than others. I asked a source at the Globe, but he was too busy dealing with actual news to get back to me. I’d be curious to know the answer.

The New York Times is offering more of a meteorological tool — a map that tracks the path of Sandy and lets you call up a forecast for your community.

Also well worth a look is an interactive map put together by Google.org, the company’s nonprofit arm. Called “Superstorm Sandy,” the map lets you add and subtract various layers, including emergency shelters, YouTube videos and public alerts.

It’s part of an international effort called Google.org Crisis Response, which makes digital tools available wherever a disaster takes place.

Rory O’Connor to read from his new book

Backscratching Day festivities continue with my interview at thephoenix.com with old friend Rory O’Connor. The occasion is O’Connor’s excellent new book, “Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands and Killing Traditional Media,” published by City Lights.

O’Connor will appear on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the Brookline Booksmith to talk about his book and sign. His book grew out of a semester he spent a few years ago at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center after stepping down as editorial director of NewsTrust. The idea behind NewsTrust was that an online community could identify and evaluate journalism with respect to sourcing, fairness and the like. Unfortunately, O’Connor discovered that too many of the people who joined NewsTrust were pushing a political agenda.

Among the more provocative ideas that O’Connor discusses in “Friends, Followers and the Future” is that Facebook is actually a fairly effective platform for sharing diverse sources of information, since members tend to cultivate a lot of “weak ties” with acquaintances whose political views and life experiences may be quite different from their own.

The larger issue, in O’Connor’s view, is trust. We no longer fully trust legacy media, whether it’s the New York Times or Fox News. Facebook, Google and other online services present their own trust issues. “But I’m optimistic,” he concludes, “that ultimately the ongoing digital information revolution will help us not only to trust, but also to verify.”

Fighting for our online freedom of speech

As I’m sure you already know, Wikipedia’s English-language site is the most prominent to go dark today in protest of two bills being considered by Congress to crack down on copyright infringement.

The bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), in the House, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), in the Senate, are being pushed by major media corporations. Copyright infringement is a real problem, of course, but these bills would place the interests of copyright-holders above all other considerations. Save the Internet puts it this way:

If they are passed, corporations (with the help of the courts) will become the arbiters of what is and isn’t lawful online activity, with millions of Internet users swept in their nets as collateral damage.

Earlier item here. Note that the Big Brother poster I used to illustrate the item is missing. I wonder if that has anything to do with the protest.

And be sure to have a look at Google.

Thinking about Rick Santorum’s Google problem

Rick Santorum

As you probably know, if you Google the word “santorum,” the very first result will be an extremely offensive website created by the gay activist Dan Savage, who was responding several years ago to Rick Santorum’s disturbingly graphic opposition to homosexuality. (Weirdly, the term “google problem” now leads to the same sort of thing.)

Now that Santorum’s presidential campaign has gotten a sudden jolt of attention, the issue of Santorum and Google is being talked about once again. I’m still thinking this through. But aside from muttering “ewww,” I also believe Google is failing at its core search business by not doing something to move Savage’s prank down in its rankings.

Here’s why. The only reason you would have to be searching for information about Santorum is that you want to find out more about him. If you want to see Savage’s handiwork, you’re not searching for information — you just want to see what the fuss is all about, or you’re curious to see whether it’s still there. If the very first result you get is the Savage page, then Google has failed at its mission of providing you with useful, relevant information about your search term.

What to do about it? The problem, as I understand it, is that Google is loath to undertake any sort of editorial intervention with its search results. From time to time it changes its secret sauce in order to defeat those who are trying to game the system. It managed to eliminate  a racist photo of Michelle Obama by rewriting its search algorithm, for instance. But the company can’t really fix the Santorum problem without reaching in and doing it by hand. (For some non-geeky technical background on the Santorum issue, see this New York Times story by Noam Cohen and this Politico item by Ben Smith.)

Well, what of it? Wikipedia has considerably more adult supervision than it did in its earliest days, and is a better research tool as a result. Most people also prefer an edited news site to a robotically assembled compilation like Google News.

I’m not calling for censorship. Savage’s site shouldn’t be disappeared. But it seems fairly obvious to me that if the first two or three (or five or six) Google results regarding “santorum” ought to be about, you know, Rick Santorum.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Big Brother Steve is not watching you

I started writing an “Apple’s not really spying on you” post a little while ago and ditched it on the grounds that I don’t fully understand all the issues involved. (That’s a first, eh?)

But I recommend this post at the Center for Democracy and Technology by John Morris, who speculates that the real reason Apple set up your iPhone to track your location is to save on battery life.

I do think there’s less to this controversy than meets the eye (as Morris writes, the location file “normally never leaves your devices”). Still, Apple (and Google, which does the same thing with its Android operating system) could have done better.