The Problem With Ad Blockers: There Ain’t No Such Thing as Free Content

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PageFair’s 2015 Ad Blocking Report paints a desperate picture for  web publishers. Those publishers, according to the report, can expect to lose $22 billion in revenues this year from readers’ widespread use of “ad blocking” software.

Halfway into the web’s third decade, content providers still struggle to monetize their products. Readers who never thought twice about springing for printed newspapers or magazines in “the old days” balk at ponying up for web editions. “Paywalls” don’t seem to work very well.

“Free” is the content watchword … but there’s no such thing as free. Most serious content providers publish for profit, not for fun. So the revenue model has evolved toward loading out every page with ads, then running as much traffic past those ads as possible.

I’m sympathetic to users, mind you. Too many ads can get very annoying, very quickly. I installed an ad blocker myself recently, specifically so that I could visit one site that (according to the ad blocker’s counter) averaged more than 20 advertisements per web page, slowing my computer to a crawl. After awhile, I rethought my strategy, uninstalled the ad blocker, and stopped visiting that site.

My reasoning: Checkout lines are inconvenient and annoying, too, but I don’t get to fill my cart with groceries and just breeze right on past the register. That would be stealing.

It seems to me that there’s a similar, if implicit, contract with web content providers. They’re not giving me the content, they’re selling it to me. The price is letting them put ads in front of me. If I’m not willing to pay that price, I shouldn’t expect the publisher to put out.

I’ve talked with fellow web readers about this. Some of them push back, pointing out that web advertising keeps getting more and more intrusive. Cookies and other tracking devices don’t just show you ads; they follow you around the Internet gathering information about you to target those ads to your interests.

I agree that tracking can get pretty creepy. And dealing with the various scripts that make the tracking possible bogs down my machine.

I think there’s a market solution to this, one that involves tough love on both sides of the content divide.

Instead of using ad blockers, readers should stop visiting sites with intrusive and annoying advertising … after hitting the contact links and explaining why they’ll be doing so in the future.

Instead of running an arms race with ad blockers, trying to find ways around them, publishers should just install scripts that detect the blockers … and black out site content entirely for readers using them.

It seems to me that this course would eventually result in some kind of detente: Readers becoming more tolerant of ads, publishers thinking more carefully about how much advertising they run, and ad brokers getting less intrusive with their tracking.

The last thing to do — unless we’re idiots — is ask government to regulate the user-provider interaction. That would only make things worse.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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Social Security: An Inconvenient Truth

English: Scanned image of author's US Social S...
Social Security card. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first “top ten” Republican presidential nomination debate consisted almost entirely of empty calories, and it’s easy to see why. The event was put on by Fox “News,” its dominating presence was Donald Trump, and its focus was, simply, on who could get most militaristic about Iran and immigration.

Issues of substance? Fuhgeddaboudit … except for one brief exchange between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor (and Fox talk show host) Mike Huckabee. Between the two of them, they revealed the narrow and dangerous range of thinking on the future of Social Security that characterizes both major American political parties. Even Bernie Sanders, allegedly a fire-breathing socialist, can’t seem to think outside that range on Social Security. A quick roundup of the positions:

Huckabee thinks that Social Security can and should be “saved” by switching from progressive federal income taxation to the “Fair” Tax, a 30% national sales tax.

Christie thinks that Social Security can and should be “saved” by increasing the retirement age by two years over a period of 25 years (i.e. every year or so, the retirement age goes up by one month) and “means testing” (i.e. stopping Social Security checks to senior citizens with retirement incomes in excess of $200k and $4 million in liquid assets).

Sanders thinks that Social Security can be “saved” by un-capping the tax that supports it. Right now, only the first $118,500 of each individual’s income is taxed for Social Security purposes. Sanders wants to remove that ceiling.

Social Security has long, and rightly, been characterized as the “third rail” of American politics. Those who touch it tend to die spectacularly gruesome political deaths. It has to be talked about, but nobody’s willing to talk about it outside the context of “saving” it.

That fear may be justified, but it’s also incredibly bad for America.

The ratio of retirees to current tax-paying workers is inverting — Baby Boomers are retiring, having had fewer children than their own parents.

Social Security’s  “trust fund” consists entirely of IOUs from a government already more than $18 trillion in debt and showing no signs of ever learning fiscal responsibility.

None of the gimmicks proposed by the likes of Huckabee, Christie and Sanders changes those fundamentals.  Even Social Security’s trustees predict insolvency by 2035, and their bookkeeping looks suspiciously optimistic.

Here’s what the politicians don’t want to tell you: Social Security is going to end.

Even if the US government hadn’t operated it as a Ponzi scheme, spending its revenues and paying old claims from new revenues, the demographic changes of the last 50 years would have made it untenable. And even absent those demographic changes, well, Ponzi schemes always collapse sooner or later.

It’s going to end. The only choice is whether it ends with a bang (total collapse and sudden mass destitution among the elderly) or a whimper (phasing it out with minimum possible harm to those counting on it).

Any politician who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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The GOP, the Boxes, and the Uber

English: Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City 2...
Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City 2009 on Pell Street, looking west towards Bayard and Mott. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

On August 4, Vikas Bajaj devoted a New York Times op-ed to the politics of Uber. The headline contends that “Republicans Are Trying to Turn Uber Into a Partisan Issue,” and that companies like Uber and Airbnb based in the “gig economy” rather than the 9-to-5 realm “hardly fit into the kind of neat ideological boxes in which Republicans would like to put them.”

Bajaj then attempts to turn Uber into a partisan issue, fitting it into the Democrats’ neat ideological boxes. Republicans spotlighting startups with hi-tech cool and youth appeal is exposed as a ploy to distract from their reactionary stands on issues like same-sex marriage. This is in no way like Bill Clinton playing the sax on TV while rubber-stamping the Defense of Marriage Act away from the cameras.

To Bajaj, Uber’s “aggressively challenging or flouting taxi regulations” appeals to Republicans’ hostility toward the regulatory state (ignoring the key role of Democratic stalwarts like Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in trucking deregulation misses an opportunity to score partisan points.)

Bajaj’s model is the detente between New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and Uber, two brash upstarts whose confrontational image is rapidly yielding to accommodation with the status quo. Not that de Blasio’s radical imagination ever approached that of true mavericks like Paul and Percival Goodman, whose 1961 remedy for Manhattan’s traffic congestion featured specialized half-length, electric-powered, 40-MPH cabs.

Bajaj notes that conservatives have backed municipal restraints on Uber, showing how “the political influence of established local businesses and labor groups” trumps professed ideology. Indeed. Bajaj points out support in Uber’s management for Obamacare “which Republicans love to hate” (but the templates of which Republicans like Mitt Romney designed to offload labor costs).

Professionals benefit in obvious ways from prohibitions on less skilled and informal competition. But contra the mythology of overpaid, underworked employees running the asylum, labor has always been a subsidiary partner in the corporate liberal coalition, in capital-intensive industries where it accounts for a relatively small proportion of operating costs. The same grassroots pressure that compelled General Motors to accede to United Automobile Workers can be applied to Uber.

Bajaj concludes that if economics doesn’t do the job, demographics will, with diverse millennials a captive constituency of the Democrats. Thus, as the Goodmans observed, voting is “according to ethnic and party groupings. The rival programs are both vague and identical.” In the 1970s, the Times was so charitable to the nascent libertarian movement (whose political party already officially supported same-sex marriage) that two of its young voices were given space in The New York Times Magazine to call JFK “one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties.” Mentioning that Uber’s CEO “holds libertarian views” only to lump them into the red-state side of the aisle, Bajaj is four decades behind the times. Where we’re riding, we need neither Republicans nor Democrats to build roads.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).

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