02 October 2016

Deceptive "Advertising"

Don Draper wouldn't tolerate invasive software inserted along with advertising, and you probably shouldn't either. If your revenue model depends upon it, you've brought shame and disgrace upon your family for generations to come.

Part of protecting artists, authors, musicians, and other creative people from theft requires me to visit some pretty unsavoury places on the 'net. This at times includes both pirate repositories and piracy index sites.1 Of late, when confirming that some of these advertised pirated copies were actually pirated copies instead of clickbait for overt malware installation (probably no standing to object on copyright-infringement grounds), I've been running into whingeing from the actual download sites about my obstinate computer's refusal to accept advertising cookies (and other tracking mechanisms). Cookies that would destroy the anonymity of an otherwise illegal but ostrich-defensed download, even if later scrubbed from the local machine (because they could be retrieved from various internet servers in between). Of course, pirate sites are far from the only whingers about those disabling so-called "ad-blockers" (which do not actually block ads — only certain non-advertising functionality deceptively and silently inserted into the ads). It's difficult to tell the difference, though:

Want to see this site correctly? Turn off AdBlockers please!
Please turn off your ad blocker. Advertising allows us to give you the news free of charge.
Please deactivate your Adblocker for [site name] now. We finance our servers through the income of ads in order to provide you with our services.

And then all three attempted to install not just cookies, but actual executable code or search-engine preferences, on my computer. (My computer is smart enough to evade this sort of nonsense.) One of the three is a relatively respected news source... and it's the most-recent of the three to publicly proclaim its "need" for advertising with this kind of whingeing. Similarly and in a rather unfunny coincidence, the popup one now sees at the bottom of CNN's page ("By using this site, you agree to the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service", with embedded links to both that bury the rather intrusive active-tracking policies inside of fine print) is identical to what has been on [major pirate site] for six months longer... and I mean "identical" as in "uses the same JavaScript code, including variable names."

But all of this concerns only the secondary demands of advertisers/consolidators. The dirty little secret is that I never read online ads; I never click on online ads; I never make purchase decisions based on online ads. And all of that goes triple for when I encounter an ad while working. In short, any "counting" of my eyeballs actually deceives the advertiser.

The irony that the advertising industry "needs" to deceptively and invisibly "track" me (data that actually does it not a damned bit of good) while deceiving me as to what it is doing is a bit much in the face of the FTC Act (and equivalent law in the European Union). Even when the ad servers themselves happen to be "outside" the jurisdictions, the services/products offered — and usually the businesses involved — are not. And in a sad twist, it's more profitable for the advertiser or ad consolidator to sell my "contact information" to one of its own competitors than to rely upon the ad to direct any money to the actual advertiser: That is, the ads and their tracking systems are deceptive even concerning who benefits. Cui bono indeed.

I have five fingers on my left hand. I need only one of them to display my opinion of these practices. Can you guess which one?

  1. In a bit of irony that perhaps only true nerds can appreciate, these index sites tend to derive from memes and technology initiated by a couple of Bay Area college students in the 1990s, who organized the nascent internet's resources into a tree-like structure with lots of cross-links. This was typical of the time, descending from mindsets concerning the hardware limitations of timeshare and similarly 1970s-based systems (and in particular reinforced by the then-contemporary mismatch between processor capability and storage access). In the grand tradition of *nix and the Bell Labs vibe still popular among serious programmers — such as the pre-Linux "clone" Xinu ("Xinu Is Not Unix") — they called it "yet another hierarchical object organizer" and put an exclamation point at the end to show just how excited they really were.

    Thus, you're still getting your internet porn and pirated downloads of Game of Thrones from Yahoo!, even if you found it using Google or some "specialized" index site. And legal research is even more closely tied to the hierarchy-of-sources-with-crosslinking model... which, perhaps, explains a lot about how poorly the legal profession does when science and facts are at issue. See, e.g., Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., No. [20]13–398 (U.S. 2013) (PDF), slip op. at 22.