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Over the past few months, I’ve been contacted by a good number of readers who have had problems downloading our guides, or why they can’t see the login buttons or comments not loading; and in 99% of cases, it’s because they’re running one these plugins – AdBlock, NoScript, or Ghostery – which I shall hereby refer to as the “trifecta of evil”. Here’s why.
Matt has already written an extensive article on why AdBlock plugin is destroying the Internet, but I want to throw my own opinion in here too.
For those of you who don’t know, AdBlock silently removes all advertising and social buttons. The thing is – those ads pay my salary, as well as the other full time editors, professionals writers, and dedicated server costs that make MakeUseOf what it is. We believe strongly in a free content model – whereby we provide free, high quality, full content to you with no restrictions – in exchange for showing you advertising. Apologies if you think my definition of free is defective, but you’re arguing over semantics and kind of missing the point.
What makes me angry about the AdBlock plugin is that the author – while happy to destroy our revenue stream – is also profiteering from the very same free content model by asking for PayPal donations when the plugin is installed. Talk about hypocrisy.
I understand that some adverts can be annoying – and we do try to remove any that auto-play a video or make noise on page load as soon as we identify them (contrary to popular belief, site owners do not choose the ads that get displayed, but we can kill them off if we find inappropriate or annoying ones, and we have requested that no such video ads be displayed as a general rule) – but the free content model is entirely what keeps the online world afloat. If you want online content to all be premium priced then go right ahead and continue using Adblock. Ultimately you need to remember that if everyone cheated the system like AdBlock users do, the Internet would only exist behind paywalls.
So when you use NoScript, you’re breaking the Internet. Not only do you drag webpages 10 years into the past, but you prevent essential modern page components from loading – hit counters and such – which again, hurts our bottom line by not giving us an accurate picture of who visits our page; as well as obviously blocking ads. From a user perspective, you’re going to find a whole host of features that don’t work as expected.
I hadn’t heard of this until recently, but Ghostery appears to be the ultimate do-not-track plugin. It tells you exactly what companies, ad networks, and tracking services are being downloaded from a site, and allows you to selectively enable them. It presents users with 2 types of cookies (‘trackers’) – those downloaded directly from the site (such as WordPress remembering you’re logged in) – and so-called “3PES” – or third-party elements. The latter are any cookies from ad networks, analytics platforms, and user behavioural trackers.
On the one hand, I think it’s important that users are educated about what’s going on behind the scenes on a site. Ghostery maintains a know your elements glossary of all the known tracking scripts and the companies they belong to – it’s comprehensive, and I applaud it. But educating people and blocking them are different, and given that the majority of users simply leave it blocking everything, the end result is the exact same as NoScript or Adblock – users enjoying our content, without creating revenue.
So how much can these companies actually “track” your web usage? Well for one, they certainly aren’t able to see what you’re doing in other tabs, other windows, or general Internet searching. They only keep a record of sites in their network which you’ve browsed to. If company X puts a cookie on the New York Times and MSNBC site, and you browse to both those and Wikipedia, it only knows about the two upon on which it was placed. In other words, they can’t tell that your other tab is open on Asian Hotties or cheatonmywife.com.
By far the easiest way to keep your private browsing actually private is to keep one particular browser, a portable thumbdrive version perhaps, to do all those browsing needs in.
So even if a tracking script does follow some of your browsing habits, is it such a big deal? At the very worst end of the scale (that is, not the ones that simply act like hit counters), they’re being used for what’s called a behaviourally-targeted market.
It works like this: you visit a well known car enthusiast site, a cookie lands on your computer saying “this person likes cars”, and any other sites you visit which are curated by the same ad company will find that cookie and say “he likes cars, so let’s show him car ads”. If you think that’s somehow ethically wrong, then stop watching TV, because they do exactly the same thing. During cooking shows, a large number of ads for cooking appliances and kitchen stuff will show. Toys, during kids programming. Heck, there’s even a bus-stop ad campaign in the UK that only shows itself when a female walks by. Hows that for targeted?
Scare tactics are part of the problem, from conspiracy theorists who believe the government is watching them and now the Internet tracking companies know their every move too. Trouble is, a lot of people without technical knowledge on the subject believe those scare tactics. Now the Internet knows you’re secretly into big ladies smothered in whipped cream, and you can be sure they’re going to use it against you.
Basically though, it comes down to this – we provide thousands of articles, free book guides, and a community-driven technical support service – in return for which, we ask that you don’t block adverts.
Now I realise of course that I’ve only presented one side of the argument here. I’ll admit right now that when you throw social networks into the mix, we may have serious privacy concerns – because suddenly, all this data can be traced back to you and not simply an anonymous user. I’ll leave that to another time or another author to present that side of the argument though. And just for the record, we won’t be locking you out of the site if you decide to not support us by removing ads. We may show a little message asking you not to do it, but we will never lock you out.
Do you disagree completely with what I’ve said? Feel free to vent your frustrations in the comments. Or do you agree with me, and think the whole do-not-track movement is crazy?
Image credit: Devils from Shutterstock