blog: Don Marti


free riding on future web ads?

20 December 2020

(Update 10 Mar 2022: frequency capping)

Free riding in today's web advertising is pretty basic.

  • Use an ad-supported site while blocking the ads.

Opportunities for free riding in the future are a lot more interesting.

  • Don't store "interest-based" ads that sites ask you to keep for possible future use.

  • Use a modified version of a browser-hosted ad auction that skips time-consuming processing steps.

  • Don't store delayed click or conversion tracking data, just drop it.

  • Turn off the browser's cache partitioning feature to save bandwidth and storage, knowing that companies won't invest in tracking the small fraction of users who figure out how to do this.

  • Identify yourself as a member of a more desirable interest group, to get better-looking ads than your station in life entitles you to.A discussion thread about economic inequality is just under the surface of the web ad argument. Much of the targeting that marketers want to do is about chasing the same people who have the money for discretionary personal spending and are also b2b decision-makers while avoiding wasting ad budgets on people who aren't in a position to spend money.

  • Turn off frequency capping to get more impressions of a big-budget ad instead of the first few impressions of a lower-quality (possibly deceptive or gross) ad

Some of the proposals for post-cookie web advertising create new opportunities for free riding, either by individuals tweaking their settings or by developers who rebuild the browser with stubbed-out versions of ad placement and reporting features.

Privacy features in post-cookie web ads are going to make a lot of free riding hard to detect while a visitor is on a site. There's no immediate difference perceptible to the site between a browser that is actually running in-browser ad auctions and delayed reporting, and a browser that is skipping all that stuff.

Will free riding browsers be an obscure nerd niche, or will these practices become common enough to provoke widely adopted countermeasures? Software, music, and movies have DRM systems. Online games have anti-cheating systems. Educational testing has intrusive proctoring systems. Will future web ad systems require some kind of locked-down browsing environment to keep people using the post-cookie ad placement and reporting system as intended?

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