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September 28, 2015 | By Dave Carroll, Associate Professor—Parsons School of Design The New School

Public media has finally started to get in on the hot topic of Content Blockers on iOS9, thanks to Manoush Zamorodi’s Note to Self podcast interview with tech reporter Casey Johnston.

I too have been obsessed with this topic and agree this is a watershed moment in the history of media and technology. I have to say that I appreciated hearing an analysis by public media, which isn’t beholden to the interests at stake here. It’s truly a dilemma from every angle and very few people are well positioned to expose the issues at stake. (By the way: This episode is total pledgebait.)

I have no problem with advertising. It’s the engine of our culture industry. I have a problem with a consumer surveillance industry that we have no basis to trust.

Privacy matters
I think we need to push the conversation about privacy and surveillance much further now, as public media’s first stab at this didn’t really go ‘there.’ Here’s to hoping a follow-up digs deeper into this shadowy world of adtech which will probably expose our worst fears:

Why can’t we review and correct our browsing history profile? Why can’t we have any agency with our identity and behavior data? Do we need the equivalent of a credit report for the adtech industry?

Let’s consider some worst case scenarios for unfettered consumer surveillance: Do we know that banks and insurance companies aren’t using our browsing history to determine our eligibility and pricing? Can we know? We know insurance companies are using credit reports now to set premium pricing. But we can see that and correct it.

This is way more serious than getting us to buy towels or cat food. Our personal health, prosperity, and opportunities in life can be determined by an opaque infrastructure with zero accountability. In this worst case scenario, we wouldn’t even know how the sites we browsed online altered our destinies IRL.

Privacy, please
Why won’t the IAB acknowledge privacy is a consumer priority? The publishers have repeatedly asked them to offer a viable opt-out solution for consumers. The adtech industry’s AdChoices “privacy” program is a disaster, I think by design, so they can say they offer it but ensure no one uses it. I fear they can’t talk about privacy because then they have to admit that if too many people opt out, the whole system’s fragility will be exposed and unravel.

Somehow, enjoying content without paying means that you must consent to unlimited, pervasive, ongoing market research to unknown third-parties for unknowable reasons. There are huge costs to us personally and to society as a whole. Consumers’ rapidly increasing adoption of adtech-blockers has exposed this critical truth.

Furthermore, if the industry had supported the Do Not Track standard like publishers have demanded, it would offer the equivalent performance boost on our phones to an iOS9 Content Blocker because the tracking software causes the sluggish performance, not the ads themselves. More importantly, it would have solved the moral dilemma here because it would have delivered a viable basis for trust, which may well have stopped the rapid development of the adblocker market.

Before anyone thinks that untracked ads can’t be sold to people who opt-out, publishers could sell ads to users with Do Not Track activated based on the demographics of us privacy nerds. Studies suggest about 10% of users care a lot about privacy. This number will only grow.

When you look at research about teens and privacy, you discover they are very savvy and routinely employ defensive tactics on digital and social media, despite the perception otherwise. The core business model of consumer surveillance without agency is unsustainable because future generations are likely to break it, no matter what.

This Note to Self episode, and virtually all discussions on this topic, rightly point out that we shouldn’t punish publishers. But the conversation has stopped short of targeting the culprit here. It’s the IAB and its constituents that need to heed our demands for privacy, transparency, agency, and accountability. If they refuse to respond, we cannot trust them. They claim to have the high moral ground, but it’s a deception or at least a denial of what’s really going on and what’s really at stake. And all this makes it clear that public media is more important than ever.


David Carroll (@profcarroll) is associate professor of media design and former director of the MFA Design and Technology graduate program at the School of Art, Media and Technology within Parsons School of Design at The New School. His pedagogy and research surrounds digital media, especially for mobile devices, towards a critical practice and theory of software and interaction design as social engagement. His work crosses multiple fields of art, design, education, sciences, humanities, and policy among both private and public-interest enterprises. He founded the Center for Mobile Creativity to support research grants from New York City Media Lab, Pearson Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, NIH/NIDA, NSF and Nokia Research Centers. Prior to his professorship, he directed commercial multimedia for major interactive media clients from 2000 to 2007 including AOL, A+E, CNN, FOX, ESPN, HBO, PBS, Random House, Smithsonian, Sony, Sports Illustrated, Time, Warner Bros and others.

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Note: This column was originally posted as a comment and has been edited and expanded for DCN.

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