The Tragedy of the Internet

Ok, it’s one well intentioned but ultimately wrong headed piece about ad blocking over the full bucket and time to put this all into perspective. My problem with Arment’s piece and others like it is the good versus evil narrative they create for the topic. Ad networks are perpetrating “rampant abuse”, people are “fighting back” and in turn being “demonized”. It’s just so over the top for a situation where all indications are that the Internet will ultimately regulate itself to a better place as entrepreneurs, browser makers and consumers do their thing.

A simple law of the Internet is that things will tend towards what is possible, not what is ethical or moral or nice. So it should be no surprise that over time advertising networks have been pushing the boundaries to extract as much data as they possibly can from our web browsing activity. The more information they have about us, the more effective their ads, and the more money they can make.

On the other side of this arms race, companies are using morally questionable business models to profit from blocking ads on websites. The biggest provider of ad blocking software in the market allows companies to pay large sums of money to be added to their whitelist. This looks an awful lot like extortion.

We shouldn’t be surprised, because the worldwide web is the commons of our age.

Ten years ago the web was a platform for publishing that was too good to be true. It was easier than ever to create a publication. Google’s algorithm did a good job of introducing people to content they liked. Anyone with a web browser could enjoy that content. Advertising made online publishing a viable business, and advertising networks made it possible for publishers to focus on what they did best: create more content.

Then all manner of opportunists started to notice ways they could attach themselves to this system and profit from it. Some found that they could game Google’s algorithm into sending searchers to content that wasn’t truly popular. Some realized they could exploit the open web to scrape content from publisher websites and profit from it in their own app. Some invented technology to help ad networks watch you on the web and automatically optimize the ads you see, making them more effective and more profitable. Others invented ways to reach into web pages and remove the offending ads before you even see them.

The result from a publisher’s point of view: Paid links and content farms perverting search results to steal your traffic. Read-it-later apps scraping your content to divert your profit and insert themselves between you and your readers. Sophisticated ad tech collecting information and stealing your audience’s privacy and trust. Ad blockers profiting as they eliminate your business model.

Hyperlinks, viewable source and cookies powered an arguably unprecedented period of innovation as the Internet grew from a small network connecting universities into something that almost unbelievably connects most of the world. But hyperlinks can be sold, viewable source can be scraped and modified, and cookies can be used by 3rd parties to monitor our browsing activity.

The openness and extensibility of the web that powered a new era of democratized publishing is now enabling the things that undermine it.

And like the farmers overusing the commons, few SEO firms, content scrapers or ad tech companies are concerned enough about the future of online publishing — an industry that makes their business possible in the first place — that they will stop undermining it. They are focused on short term gain. Even if they understand the overall dynamic, they know that their individual decision to stop would not save the commons. So they continue, each playing their own, perfectly rational role in the unfolding tragedy.

Yes, it’s sometimes a pity that we can’t have nice things. But if this is the end, it is only the end of online publishing as we know it. Innovation isn’t slowing down. Content creators and consumers will find new ways to reach each other and the story will continue.