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What’s Wrong With The Internet?

2014 October 5
by Greg Satell

I really hate pop-up ads.  It seems that whenever I click on something that looks interesting, I’m distracted by something that doesn’t interest me in the least—a subscription offer, an app download, a conventional ad, whatever.  It’s maddening.  I could kill the guy who invented them!

Then I recently met the guy who invented pop-ups, Ethan Zuckerman at the Business Innovation Factory Summit (BIF) and he was, in fact, very nice.  He apologized for his creation, not just to me and not just to the audience, but to the entire world with a mea culpa in The Atlantic.

Yet Zuckerman’s apology falls flat.  The truth is that it really isn’t his fault.  If he didn’t invent pop-ups, somebody else would have.  The Internet is not a moral agent, but reflects our own base needs and desires.  The online advertising culture, as crass and offensive as it may be, continues to thrive because we prefer things that way.  The problem isn’t the Internet, it’s us.

The Problem Is Much Bigger Than Popups

In his talk at BIF, Zuckerman made clear that he wasn’t only apologizing for himself, but the entire ad supported Internet.  He calls advertising the “original sin” of the Internet, because it has given rise to a free enterprise version of the surveillance state.  Once you have advertising, you need targeting, and that requires ever more sophisticated tracking.

Very few people realize how pervasive this surveillance state has become.  In many ways, it is far more extensive than the NSA’s metadata program that had everybody up in arms last spring.  To get an idea of how truly vast the private effort to track your online behavior is, take a look at this chart that Luma Partners prepares every year (click to enlarge):



Every time you click on a link, an electronic impulse makes its way through all the boxes on the grid.  In each one, a company registers your activity and saves it for further analysis before it sends the impulse on to the next link in the chain.  All this just so that an advertiser can put a promotional message in front of you.

That’s an amazing amount of activity to take place between the time you click and when the intended page appears, but even that only tells part of the story.  Advertising is just a small fraction of the larger universe of marketing technology, which encompasses every imaginable facet of commerce today.


This is truly the dark side of technology and we can only expect it to get worse.  Right now, it is mostly our online activity that is tracked, but with facial recognition algorithms improving by the day, pretty soon our offline behavior will be trackable as well.  Before long, our biometric and genetic data will be thrown into the mix as well.

To be fair, marketers do understand the problem and make serious efforts to separate our data from our identities, but that’s far from reassuring.  Once a connection is made, either through malice or by mistake, it’s out there for good.

Ethan Zuckerman’s Real Problem

Ethan Zuckerman laments his mistake and wants to correct it.  He envisions a new Internet architecture built on micropayments, possible utilizing Bitcoin or a similar cryptocurrency. Take advertising out of the picture, he argues, and you solve a big part of the problem. Unfortunately, that’s demonstrably untrue.

The truth is that marketers will pay more for consumers than consumers will pay for content. While this isn’t universally accurate—I’ve pointed to some important exceptions in the past—it is generally how things work.  And that’s enough to make advertising the most viable media model.

The salient point is that even if Zuckerman succeeded in his quest, which is extremely unlikely, marketers would still want to track us and would have ample opportunity to do so. Every time we go to an ecommerce site or a retail store, we engage in trackable commercial behavior.  Sure, there’s no pop-up ads, but the tracking is still there.

A Golden Age Of Publishing

There is, of course, the possibility that publishers themselves may reject both the ads and the tracking.  It stands to reason that if there is a way to make money without annoying their audience and invading privacy, it would be far more preferable than a revenue model.

Zuckerman thinks there is a better way.  He points to a variety of other revenue models, from micropayments to premium services that allow users to avoid ads and tracking altogether. Surely with all of the trouble we hear about in the publishing industry, there must be a great opportunity for new and innovative revenue models?

Yet these arguments don’t reflect reality.  In fact, as I noted in Harvard Business Review, the publishing business has never been better.  As Zuckerman himself points out, even print still makes money and new publishers like Huffington Post and Bleacher Report sell for hundreds of millions after just a few years .  Buzzfeed was just valued at $850 million

So if both advertisers and publishers like the current model, who’s to stand in its way?

We Get The Technology That We Want

The truth is that Ethan Zuckerman is not to blame, we are.  The Internet is not moral or immoral, it is amoral.  It gives us what we ask from it.  Zuckerman wanted to build web services, so he found a way to pay for it.  He would have been happy to pursue another revenue model, but advertising was our preferred method of payment for his services.

And it still is.  I may hate pop-up ads, but I don’t do much to avoid them.  On the other hand, I do quite a bit to avoid paywalls, including eschewing the content altogether.  Most people, it seems, feel the same way.  There are a variety of technologies that allow us to avoid ads, including ad blocking software and the ability to turn off cookies, but few use it.

So Zuckerman’s apology, while sincere and heartfelt, is also meaningless.  He can’t help us, we can only help ourselves.  Despite the short period of outcry following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, it still goes unnoticed that we regularly submit ourselves to a far higher level of surveillance by private corporations, without complaint.

As Martin Heidegger pointed out long ago, we build how we dwell.  We only have ourselves to blame.

– Greg

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