Category Archives: Ethics

Is Ad Blocking A Form Of Looting?

One description of the increase in ad blocking is that it’s a kind of boycott. While that may be the view of blockers the content producers may see it differently. For them advertising pays for their effort to create the content. So when people consume their content without any payment (in the form of attention) then their incentive to produce suffers.

This ‘boycott’ of advertising—while still taking the ad-supported services—appears to have much more in common with looting. Looting often occurs when large numbers of people feel deprived or exploited. Like a kind of vigilante justice one could argue the careless and invasive advertisers have pushed users to this extreme.

Of course a boycott sounds a lot more noble. But if I’m not mistaken that would involve avoiding the entire business, not using their services while dodging payment. Picketing is another feature that can accompany boycotts. Those bothered by ads do have options to express their discontent on social media, forums, and comments; though, admitted not always directly on the site of the business itself.

Alternatives to ad-funding do hold promise: micro payments, donations, and subscriptions. Each has some friction for users to get involved. Perhaps when doing so is easier than installing an ad-blocker things will turn around.

So what do you think? Is ad blocking more like a boycott or looting? Something else entirely?

Ad Blocking Robs Everyone

Internet services and web content take time and energy to develop and maintain. Since the Web opened to commercial business and broader public adoption in the 1990’s it has been increasingly funded by advertising. Yet tools which block ads, like Ad Block Plus, undermine this support. Without compensation for their work the people who produce websites and services will have to find another way to get paid or stop producing.

Of course nothing in life is completely free, but the increasingly easy access to the Net make it seem that way. While we consumers pay for access to the network, it’s often advertisers who pay for the content we enjoy. This makes a large volume of work available that might not be accessible. Before commercialization web access was typically only available at large institutions like universities, governments, and large companies. So naturally content was tailored for this audience; research, educational resources, and business records.

As more consumer content (like games, music, and news) came on-line it became more worthwhile for the general public to get involved. But without ads growth was slow. Since then on-line advertising and network technology matured some advertising is yielding to direct purchasing and patronage. It’s happening with movies on Netflix, music on Spotify, and publication with Patreon and Google Contributor. Though, given how modest direct contributions are compared to market of paid and free-with-ads-or-in-app-purchasing it appears most consumers opt for ads over paid subscriptions. In other words, we’re more willing to give up time than cash.

Ads also lower the barrier to entry which makes the web more accessible to those who are unable to contribute directly to producers; whether because of the cost, technological, or regional barriers.

Certain ad blockers and blocker producers claim that they’re only avoiding annoying ads. Yet they still consume the content regardless. So it’s like saying “I only steal from stores when the payment is distasteful”.

AdBlock Plus looks especially hypocritical as they extort payment from advertisers to avoid blocking. Perhaps they’ll also unblock their own advertising

Now I’m no saint either. Before fully understanding the consequences, I used such blockers as a way to avoid annoyances on the web. In fact the act of writing this article has made me rethink my use of RequestPolicy and similar tools to avoid loading unnecessary assets. One could take this view to the extreme and say that disabling plugins like Flash is theft since ads may depend upon it. Accessibility tools likewise may restrict how the web is presented. However, in such cases the intent is significantly different and advertisers often have a way to fall back to self-hosted ads, ads without plugins, or without images. Even so I’ve decided that my blocking of all 3rd-party resources is going too far.

We as consumers can chose to avoid advertising on the Internet, but the only ethical solution is to pay producers ourselves or do without their services. Anything else is theft. Otherwise the decreasing effectiveness of ads will probably lead to less content for all of us.

Poisoning Ourselves With Plastic

It’s easy to overlook just how much plastic one uses day-to-day. But the earth is a closed system that notes every wrapper, foam cup, and throwaway bag on it’s very permanent record. And as the refuse breaks down it works its way back to us through the food chain.

Since the oceans act like a sponge the creatures living there consume the plastic bits left behind. While this isn’t recent news there has been some recent attention. Catalyst ABC’s Plastic Ocean piece explains the situation. Around half way through the video I began to take stock of how I have been unintentionally contributing to the problem myself.

Being ecologically minded I thought I was doing well by shopping with reusable bags, drinking from reusable bottles, and harvesting some tea and coffee grounds for composting. Living in a recycling community also helps reduce the problem. But they don’t accept plastic bags, wax paper, Styrofoam, or complex items like electronic gadgets.

When I began to consider everything I consume it became obvious there is more room to improve. During any given week my non-recyclable consumption breaks down as follows:

  • 4 plastic, single-cup, coffee containers
  • 4 plastic wrappers for tea
  • 3 plastic, vegetable wrappers
  • 2-3 thin, plastic, produce bags
  • 2 plastic, zip bags for nuts
  • 1 wax and cardboard fruit container

Given 52 weeks in a year that makes 754 items that have to go somewhere. One idea is to switch to tea that comes in paper wrappers but even that may not be the optimal considering how the paper is produced. Of course this isn’t the whole picture. There are also holiday gifts, treats offered, and packages purchased at various times throughout the year.

Reuse and recycling can help too. Though ultimately, the best solution is to reduce consumption. Saying ‘no’ to oneself and others can be awkward and occasionally painful. Yet if one wants to enjoy food, especially from the sea, without plastic contamination then the bigger picture must be kept in mind every time temptation arises.

Buying New Often Borrows From The Future

Trying to save the world by upgrading to more efficient models may actually do the opposite. This appears especially true of electronic equipment whose actual lifespans are in free fall because of the race to get the ever shiner, newer model. When those newly produced products are made from non-renewable resources one is subtracting from what would be available in the future. To be blunt, it’s stealing from children to indulge ourselves.

Honestly, I’m no saint in this regard. From 1992 through 2014 I’ve used eight different desktop computers, six laptops, at least six monitors, and eight cell phones. Sadly about half were thrown away or broken.

While some of the upgrades have proven more efficient in terms of processing the trend among desktops and phones is to draw more power. Case in point, my first desktop had a 240W power supply while my latest needed 700W, largely because of the fancy video adapter. Charging has also become more frequent with smart phones. My Blackberry smartphones often went weeks without a charge. Now it’s rare to find a smart phone guaranteeing more than 24 hours of battery life. Even the move from power-hungry, CRT monitors to flat screens has its disadvantages.

SusteIT’s report concludes that one should prefer to maximize what one already has in use considering the total impact of manufacturing computer equipment. Despite the complexities involved I feel confident recommending that any PC or laptop made within ten years should suffice, with proper care. Beyond that point it should still be usable for casual workloads.

Not every household item is the same of course. Some appliances like outdated refrigerators are better recycled for scrap than kept in service. When to draw the line is not difficult to find out. A few web searches on “life cycle assessment” and the kind of appliance should help. Deciding between repair and replacement is a similar situation with a similar solution.

Maintenance is another factor in maximizing use. Taking care can also benefit resale value when it is time to replace something. Until such times are necessary let’s try to resist the urge to prematurely upgrade. Otherwise the legacy we leave will include overflowing scrapyards and landfills.

Buying new products brings with it a responsibility to future generations, whether or not it’s obvious. Next time you’ve the opportunity please do everyone a favor and seriously consider purchasing used or refurbished instead.

Freebies From Platform Makers Are Destroying Markets

As platform makers like Apple, Google, and Microsoft expand their offerings to include more and more features they often destroy the markets of their developer partners. These companies are natural monopolies as the sole maintainer of their respective platforms; even the relatively open platform of Android is migrating to increasingly proprietary apps and services that Google alone controls. Yet because of their ability to influence through defaults and brand they’re also in a position to swallow whole markets.

Apple’s Ping, Google Wave, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone all show that such expansion efforts are not always a runaway success. Unfortunately there are also examples of platform producers acquiring and pricing others out of markets:
* Apple Siri and Google Now compete with 3rd party voice recognizing assistants like Vlingo
* Google’s purchase of DoubleClick has accelerated the race to the bottom of advertising pricing
* Microsoft Internet Explorer destroyed Netscape’s browser market
* Microsoft Office 365’s bundling unlimited storage for less than $10 per month may prove decimating to competitors like Dropbox

Recent anti-competitive measures are not limited to bundling and acquiring. The move to official application stores has also further tightened the grip of platform developers on users who once depended upon 3rd party providers. Apple prohibits 3rd party stores on it’s devices. Google has also tightened certification requirements to get their increasingly core applications onto hardware. This leaves users with fewer practical choices and developers at the mercy of a relatively small number of platform makers.

Freebies from companies of all sizes seems to be an increasingly significant portion of the software and services used by everyday consumers. Imagine if the same were true of cafeterias in malls, with the largest portion of consumers taking samples from many different food vendors. And not only once but on an ongoing basis. Such a market would be untenable. This is all the more acute when a monopoly does so because they have the most immediate access to users of their platform, and often they can offset loses elsewhere.

Companies should not be forever pigeon-holed into their original business market, that would stifle innovation. However, once a company gains a significant or controlling share of a market I do think it is better for everyone if there were some reasonable limits to their expansion. Perhaps if expanding their platform were justified, for example for accessibility, then the default would have to show alternatives and the internal Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) be exposed for others to utilize.

Requiring customers to buy only on faith is another unrealistic solution. Allowing free products and services has it’s place, but I believe that much like the shareware market of the 1990’s the current freeware and services cannot last. Bitcasa’s recent pricing increase is a sign of things to come as smaller companies are unable to compete.

Fake It And They Will Come

A disturbing trend among new, often social, services is to create fake users and content in order to give the impression they are active and popular.

First impressions are not everything, but they can set expectations for both those producing a service and those consuming it. If a service such as Reddit gains traction because they followed the fake-it-until-you-make-it philosophy then what’s to stop them from again choosing dishonesty when faced with other ethical dilemmas? There is also the hypocrisy factor when services demand complete honesty in their terms of service.

Imagine this ‘seeding’ practice becomes so well known among users that it’s expected of all new sites? Consumers may become increasingly cynical and untrustworthy of unfamiliar offerings. It could provide more security for established services at the expense of younger ones. Which would be ironic for those services which became entrenched by dishonest seeding.

There are plenty of other ways to establish a user base without resorting to lying. Offering consumers incentives for sign up and participation may also be considered shady since it is not purely natural behavior. Yet doing so offers a clear benefit for both parties without pretense. When content or users are faked the legitimate users gain only a false sense of the community or service.

What do you think? Have you encountered a service or site that relied upon falsified content? If so please consider commenting.