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blog: Don Marti

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Asking sites to do something about surveillance marketing

18 November 2017

This might get the privacy activists mad at me, but as far as I can tell it's still counterproductive to ask a web site you visit to remove its third-party trackers.

Of course, third-party trackers are probably helping to support a political cause that most sites don't agree with, and, as Zeynep Tufekci says, "We're building a dystopia just to make people click on ads". This stuff needs to get fixed. So this is about productive next steps.

Right now, advertising on the site you're writing to probably isn't saleable without the creepy trackers. (User tracking as Chesterton's Fence) So what can privacy people productively ask sites for? Some good ones are:

  • Fix any "turn off your ad blocker" scripts to detect ad blockers only, and not falsely alert on privacy tools.

  • Remove links to the the confusing and broken "YourAdChoices" site. Adtech opt-outs don't cover all trackers, and are much less effective than real privacy tools. (I have never had all the opt-outs work on that site, even from a fresh, pristine browser. Somehow I get the sense that the adtech firms don't exactly put their best people on it.)

  • Link to the privacy pages for the third parties the site uses. If the advertising on the site is set up so that this is hard to do, and users might see a tracker from an unknown domain, say so.

  • Fix up the privacy page to add links to appropriate privacy tools based on the user's browser. Better to have users on privacy tools than get enrolled in a paid whitelisting scheme.

  • If you maintain a privacy tool, offer to do a campaign with the site. Privacy tool users are high-quality human traffic. Free or discounted privacy tools might work as a subscription promotion. Where's the win-win?

Asking a site to walk away from money with no credible alternative is probably not going to work. Asking a site to consider next steps to get out of the current web advertising mess? That might.

More: What The Verge can do to help save web advertising