What Is to Be Done About the Ad-Based Internet economy?

Just as a note - I ran a large web site/forum for 18 years and then another mid-sized for five and I never used any visitor data for anything…although I must admit to having shown some adsense ads on the larger site. Truth is, they never paid very well.
I happened to find the ad model worked for me - due to lower overhead (just me, part time) and also due to “direct to client” ads. Since there was no such thing as an ad network at the time, I contacted manufacturers of said products (high efficiency wood/pellet stoves, etc.) and had them pay yearly fees from $800 to 10K+ for being featured on the site. I never packed any pages with ads so received zero complaints over two decades. The site was profitable (although I never started or ran it for money!) from the first year until I sold it.

The second site was also educational on robotic tech and cameras. Once again I used ads, but in this case they were affiliate. It turned out there were very few vendors of such products, so the readers were going to buy “Brand Y” almost no matter what…but if they bought it after reading my “free” information, I got a cut of it. That did very well also…although again, not intended to make money.

I will note this. The Affiliate model was one of diminishing returns while the “direct client” ad model was not. This is due to the obvious…once a site can make money with Affiliates, 100 sites (or more) will eventually pop up with little or no content but designed just to slice off a piece of that pie. Income from that site was cut in 1/2 three years in a row. It doesn’t take math skills to see that this is not a sustainable model. Still, if the topic had still interested me I would have kept the site even with just “beer money” income.

What amazes me is these well known sites (CNN, etc.) that literally have 100 ads or more (mostly clickbait stuff at the bottom). That is pure desperation as the return per ad has to be incredibly low.

Top down change in those cases could come from ad networks by their limiting of allowable number of ads on each page. But they have little impetus to do so.

Anyway, just some short stories to show that ad-supported situations can work…seems less so as time goes by, tho.

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I am no legal scholar, but this may be because data protection is assimilated to privacy, a human right. Human rights doctrine ringfences away from market logic some aspects of human life. For example, there is certainly a return on child labor (ROCB) – just ask 19th century mine owners. There is also a return on selling yourself away as a slave (ROSYAAS) – and indeed this move was the last recourse of debt-ridden farmer in many societies, including ancient Babylonia. But modern lawmakers conclude that such practices are degrading and should be outlawed, not monetized. Maybe the regulators mentioned in the paper have a similar mindset about consumer privacy (I prefer to talk of “individual” privacy).

Interesting that you read it that way. Rights are both enjoyed and exercised, both of which may well include the generation of value (independent newspapers are a case in point, having a business model and maintaining an infrastructure for freedom of expression / public discourse does not mean rights are monetized). Whether the idea of a return means monetization depends on the values, and there is more than one logic of markets. For people to have a better sense of how (commercial / non-commercial) value is generated with data they provide makes sense to me (also because it resonates with my own interests in whiteboxing tech); and while this particular author begins with customers (of social media platforms, for example) rather than citizens (or non-citizens, for that matter) more broadly, the wide scope - see refs to the debate on whether data is capital or labor - suggests that we are still relatively early in that process of coming to terms with how data operates in processes of value creation…

I like the notion of ROD, but would there ever be a way to get to a realistic number? Would those companies honestly disclose that value? And maybe it isn’t very high per-person but becomes very valuable when aggregated in big groups. Regardless, I do think that an individual should know what data is gathered, what gets rolled up into big group numbers, how it is used, all of that. Only then could you decide if it is worth it to you or not.

Obfuscating to mess with ads? https://m.slashdot.org/story/357538

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Clever…have you tried it?

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Not yet, but I will =)

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An interesting quote from “Chaos Monkeys” by Antonio Garcia Martinez:

In media, money is merely expendable ammunition; data is power. With this new programmatic technology that allowed each and every ad impression and user to be individually scrutinized and targeted, that power was shifting inexorably from the publisher, the owner of the eyeballs, to the advertiser, the person buying them. If my advertiser data about what you bought and browsed in the past was more important than publisher data like the fact that you were on Yahoo Autos right then, or that you were a (supposedly) thirty-five year old male in Ohio, then the power was mine as the advertiser to determine price and desirability of media, not the publisher’s. As it turned out, this “first party” advertiser data - the data that companies like Amazon know about you - is more valuable than any publisher data.

This was a seismic shift that would affect everything about how we consume media, leaving publishers essentially powerless and at the service of the various middlemen between them and advertiser dollars, all in the name of targeting and accountability. If the publisher wasn’t savvy enough to arm itself with sophisticated targeting and tracking before tangling with the media-buying world, then that world would come to them, in the form of countless arbitrageurs and data quacks peddling media snake oil. Which is why even august publishers like the New York Times live at the pleasure of the media supply-side technology, data management solutions, and advertiser technologies that ostensibly pay them. Of course some very protective publishers like Google and Facebook, with unique media offerings, refuse to get arbitraged so openly, and to one degree or another, attempt to own the technical and the business connections between them and their advertising dollars.

Google moves towards implmenting a plugin/extension API to prevent ad-blockers to be effective in Chrome.

Mozilla seems to fight back.


ugh. several years ago when I talked with internet startups I advised them to move away from ad-based revenue models, as everyone would soon be using ad-blockers - but I see I was wrong: big tech is more than happy to revert it back to ad-based. Can we not come up with something more creative to make money but to shove products into our faces we don’t really need?

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There are many decades of experience in media (newspapers, radio, TV, etc.) which I think got creative enough to know the basic score.
Grants (public TV, Radio, etc.)
Plain ole do-gooders (hard to do on scale)

Unless I missed something that’s about all there is. Even Grant based media uses ads these days (public radio, podcasts), although they are not in-your-face and tracking types.

Micro payments, which were the hot subject a decade or two ago, really never took off - but that is a subscription model in any case.

It’s hard to imagine coming up with anything new after so many millions have thought about this for so long. There are only X number of ways to create income from media…and that is what is being discussed when it comes down to it.

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I guess like with all of this, it comes down to where any given line gets drawn and who gets to draw it. I recall that years ago there was this US law that disallowed subliminal micro-second message being flashed at you on TV or a movie theater saying things like “you need Coke” as an example of the drawing of a line, in this case talking directly to your subconscious for purposes of manipulation. Somewhere along the line that standard (if it ever really existed) disappeared. because what is so different from that and all this data mining about you without your knowledge or express consent?

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This is a good interview with author Douglas Rushkoff about his new book, “Team Human.” He says things we are talking about here and is being discussed in books, articles, etc - and is a big driver of this IoH/NGI project. But Doug is a clear thinking, plain speaking guy, who, like many of us, was a true believer for a long time until we have watched our rather rosy view of the digital future become clouded. This interview adds to our understanding of the problem I think.

pushed it to my e-reader for later today. Thanks for linking it!

This isn’t a solution to moving away from the ad-based internet economy, but it surely seems to be a nice niche tool to not having to see those ads (if it at least ensures it can’t be detected by the websites):


If enough ads got blocked then maybe other business models could emerge. But then, I am someone who has routinely for decades hit the mute button when the ads come on. I always figure that nobody would want to hear them. But at times when I have done that, some in the room actually objected because they wanted to hear the ads. And one time I was told that it is wrong for me to do that because it is my obligation to listen and watch them in exchange for seeing the content. I can see that argument, but how else does one control his or her immediate environment? Furthermore, cable news was sold to us all as an ad-free service since we have to pay for it. But that isn’t how it turned out.

I’m not sure if you are following the Edgeryders festival, but I’m hosting an event on the topic of open source many of you should join on the 28:th november in Stockholm.

“Dont leave the future of internet in the hands of the proprietary software” =)


@erik_lonroth I am not in Stockholm. But this is really great work, thank you so much. It means a lot :slight_smile:

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“Mozilla is no longer fighting for market share of its browser: it is fighting for the future of the web,” writes the Guardian, citing Mozilla Project co-founder Mitchell Baker: Baker’s pitch is that only Mozilla is motivated, first and foremost, to make using the web a pleasurable experience. Google’s main priority is to funnel user data into the enormous advertising engine that accounts for most of its revenue. Apple’s motivation is to ensure that customers continue to buy a new iPhone every couple of years and don’t switch to Android…"


It could be argued that the greatest social benefit that came from America Online’s fairly brief reign over the online world was their acquiring Netscape when it went on the sales block, and then, when it was clear that they were buying the talent more than the software (something they did pretty often actually), releasing the Netscape source code. This became the basis for Mozilla (which had been the name of the netscape mascot).

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