The Cookie Monster in the Closet

Is the entire web universe populated by advertising weasels, sell-outs, and apologists?

Maybe I’m just an old fashioned curmudgeon, but I’m mad as hell and I’m not about to sell my soul to Satan for a slow, free, advertising besotted Wi-Fi service.  Am I the only one who objects to the burgeoning AdverNet and the coming of hordes of ads "tailored" to me and my interests? Is the entire web universe populated by advertising weasels, sell-outs, and apologists?

Want to opt out of all the tracking and “metrics” that the network providers are going to be selling to the advertisers? Good luck.

There was a time when “Madison Avenue” was a dirty phrase, smart consumers looked with disdain at the manipulation wrought by advertisers, and the cognoscenti prided themselves on not being taken in by the wiley ways of copywriters and art directors.  At the same time journalists took pride in a firewall between advertising and editorial, and kept their skeptical chops in working order whenever any company, or high and mighty luminary, made any claim whatsoever.

No more.  Today’s Internet Generation—so sorry, the original Web and it's malingering bubble step child, the Web 2.0 community—has embraced advertising as its Holy Grail and created a fledgling economy based on manipulating, subverting, and fleecing consumers in ways far more intrusive, and scary, than ever before.  At the same time the blogosphere has lost any semblance of veracity—everything is an opinion, irresponsible gossip is reported as fact, fact checking is oh-so-last year, big traffic bloggers parrot the company line while pretending to write analysis—and the line between PR and reporting has blurred to be meaningless.  (Check out this blog reporting from uber-Tech reporter Jim Forbes about a colleague’s use of the word “exclusive”, and his follow-up.)  And worse, there’s a tacit acceptance of this entire house of cards that has the entire industry pretending that there’s no monster in the closet, while many of the best minds in this  generation are feverishly working on ever more sophisticated ways to make advertising the central pillar of our future and create customized advertising that reaches into my deepest personal interests a la Big Brother.

I’m talking about the unquestioned adoption of the religion of the Holy Church of Internet Advertising, and its scary priestdom of “metrics”, whose dominance is destroying the beautiful egalitarianism of the Web.  It is about to get worse by orders of magnitude with the appearance of “location based services” as the patents recently revealed by Google make clear.  If that all wasn’t bad enough, there is the Faustian deal with the Devil crafted by Google to hobble Chinese access to the Internet.  The rise of a cult of advertising, the silence of the lambs as we go quietly to slaughter, and the howls of protest when our government listens in to Al Qaeda coupled with the muted protests about Google’s “do no evil” manipulation of search results in order to do the bidding of a repressive and authoritarian regime strikes fear into my heart.

Back in the Golden Era of Television the ads were clearly ads, they came at specified times, they were aimed at every viewer not just me, and unless I was one of several thousand Nielsen Families, the programming mavens back at network central had no idea what I specifically was watching or doing.  This seemed like a fair quid pro quo for using the airwaves: I got content I could choose and could ignore or watch the ads as I saw fit, while they had to employ tea leaves and inductive reasoning to figure out if their ad campaigns were working.

All of this has changed in the Internet Age. The real secret of the web turned out to be sponsored ads, linking my interest in a particular topic (as evidenced by entering it into a search engine) with advertisers willing to pay for the chance to get me to click on a brief listing displayed alongside my search results.  The argument was that in exchange for the valuable service Google provided in structuring and navigating the nearly infinite Web, I would put up with the limited intrusion of the sponsored ads.  And frankly, as far as that went, it was a pretty good deal.  The consumer was still in charge, received a valuable service, and got links that were at least tangentially related to his interests.  Little did we realize that this was Pandora’s Box swinging open and all hell was going to break loose.

Human beings being what they are, there was soon a lot of insidious stuff developed to stick under the covers.  First, the Search Engine Optimizers (SEOs) moved in to make sure that their clients’ sites moved higher in the search rankings—consumers thought they were getting an unvarnished listing of search results ranked by linkages, but instead (with the active connivance of Google which holds seminars for SEOs) the fix has long been in.  (The Chinese disaster is only the most visible example of manipulated search results—do you really believe that the biggest advertisers aren’t getting premium placement in the search results as well?) Cookies were set everytime you showed up at most web sites—they can be stopped, but you’ve got to go through some rigamarole and some sites won’t work correctly without them.  Your Internet address was recorded, along with your pageviews, and until users rose up in opposition, privacy was non-existent. 

However, since most consumers paid for their own operating systems, and accessed the web through networks that they controlled in some way, it was still possible—though none too easy—to opt out of the tracking systems and thwart the efforts of the marketers to reach down into your family history to find out more about you. A handful of software programs help sanitize your system of these pernicious intrusions, but you have to make an effort.  Contrast this to the default situation in the broadcast world where there is no back channel whatsoever—isn’t this what “opt-in” should mean?

The trouble is going to come when the web’s interactivity meets “free” networks that are built on top of a metrics based view of the world.  This is the model for the “location based services” like Loki and Plazes, all vying to deliver data for the new Wi-Fi networks being planned for metro areas.  There will be blankets of wireless coverage available anywhere your device can fire up.  This is being hailed as some panacea by a wave of web commentators who are enamored of a socialist vision of broadband for the masses, weighted down by too many digital devices, and afflicted with a myopia for its consequences. 

In exchange for getting the “free” services you’ll be peppered with ads, especially for local businesses who’ve ponied up money.  Everything you do will be tracked, and mined, and recorded.  Want to opt out of all the tracking and “metrics” that the network providers are going to be selling to the advertisers?  Good luck.  Remember who is going to be supplying you with the wireless bandwidth.  Advertisers.  Opt out of their game, and there’ll be no services. 

Personally, I don’t want some HAL-like voice welcoming me back to the Google San Francisco Wi-Fi network and asking if I enjoyed that pizza I ordered last time I was on the network and would I like to know where I can get one just like it nearby.  I find this intrusive, and unhelpful.  And while we’re at it, I really don’t want to add my metrics to anyone’s marketing statistics.  And I don’t want you to know what film clips I’ve watched at YouTube.  And I don’t think that Google should be able to sell its ads for pizza parlors by telling them that I had a roasted garlic and chicken pie last week.

It is one thing to see a Nike ad that is aimed at all consumers;  it is entirely another order of hideous to have to fight through dozens of ads that are crafted to echo some tiny part of my life.  Imagine the intrusions of telemarketing brought to the Internet by all the smarts of legions of web monkeys.  Am I the only person in the country who doesn’t want to be bombarded with brain dead ads, commercial dreck, and services that I don’t want?

How about a “Just Say No” movement.  It’s time to stand up for something.

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