Thursday, 16 June 2016

Browsing is Broken Part 1: Unsolicited Content

The websites of many of the major news outlets that I used to read regularly are now overloaded with ads and content from third parties that I just can't tolerate any more. I started to notice how bad things were getting about three years ago when visiting on my Android phone exposed me to malware that made a charge to my mobile bill. It's not just inconvenient, it's insecure, and ultimately it's lose-lose for the media and their audience.

I get the business model that online companies need to sell advertising, and in principle I support that absolutely. Heck, I tried signing this blog up for Adsense in the off chance I can finally make a dollar back off Google (they turned me down). What I don't agree with is the way they implement it. Simplistically, when I enter in my browser, the conversation between the computers involved goes something like this:

myphone: Hey, can I get the front page please?
nytimes: Hang on a sec...just looking you up...
nytimes: Hey adservers, dubhrosa just asked me for my front page, whaddya got for him
adserver_network: oh baby! dubhrosa, I've got a ton of stuff for that guy, I'll send it directly to him if that's ok.
nytimes: Yeah sure, go nuts, I'll send him the headlines and some pictures, I'll leave most of the page for you guys
adserver_network: Great! Last week he bought an anorak from amazon. Maybe he'd like to see a couple more ads for anoraks. Also, a few months ago, he clicked on an ad for septic tank inspection services, it might have been a misclick, and we've shown him about 2000 more of the same ad since then, but hey maybe today's the day. Oh, and he seems to be into cars, so lets put on that video for the new Ford truck that starts to play automatically.
nytimes: ok great, thanks dudes
adserver_network: sure thing nytimes, here's your 0.001c
nytimes: hey thanks! nice tip! you guys are sooo nice!
myphone: ok, here's the html for this nytimes front page, thanks nytimes
nytimes: my pleasure
myphone: ok, in order to display this page, I need to go fetch a crapload of pictures and stuff, let's get that
myphone: hey, strange_name_1 through strange_name_200, can I have this stuff please?
adserver_network: [teehee, they never know it's us] sure! here you go!
myphone: yikes, they're sending me 50 megabytes of crap here, oh well this is gonna hurt my data plan and my battery.

Here's how the conversation should go:

myphone: Hey, can I get the front page please?
nytimes: Hang on a sec...just looking you up...
nytimes: (to self) ok, what ads do I have today that I should show dubhrosa...ok, stick them into the page
nytimes: here you go, this is the front page html
myphone: thanks nytimes
myphone: ok, there's some other stuff I need to download from nytimes to complete the page
myphone: nytimes, give me these pictures and video links please
nytimes: here you go
myphone: thanks!

The key difference is that in this flow, the nytimes is responsible for storing and serving the advertising content to its readers. The ad content is stored on their servers, and their staff have the ability to control that content. They can still target me with ads they think are relevant based on my previous online activity, but they have full control over the content that is sent in response to my request. They can keep the page size below some sensible limit. They can ensure their readers have a nice experience when browsing their site. I don't think any of this is unreasonable demand. Imagine if a newspaper editor allowed advertisers to scrawl whatever they wanted into the adspace of the newspaper, with absolutely no review by the newspaper staff. Shouldn't media companies, whose brand is so important, take control of what they send to their readers?

Unfortunately, the way the online ad industry has turned out means that this is unlikely to change, and in order to make browsing tolerable, we have to find solutions. I've looked at quite a few, and that's what I'll be talking about in part 2. Read Part 2

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