The Busker's Ultimatum

By: MikeSept 24, 2015

Imagine, if you will, that sometime last week there was a lovely day, and you were wandering about town enjoying the weather. At some point you heard the sound of a guitar and somebody singing along with it. The guy was good. Not "book front-row concert tickets" good, but good enough to make you stop and tap your foot for a minute. You listened, maybe you dropped a dollar or two in the guitar case, and you wandered on your merry way.

A few days later, you get a text message from an unknown sender, indicating that the singer now has a CD for sale. It seems odd, but you don't take any action. A few days later, you get an email advertising a sale on the brand of guitar the busker was playing. You begin to worry a little bit. Over the next few days, every time you visit a web-site, there's a large flash-based banner advertising folk-singers, guitars, and musical accessories. Your email is assaulted with a flood of music-related spam. Finally, one of your Facebook friends writes you a nasty-gram demanding that you quit spamming her with folk-music links, right before she blocks you completely.

Incandescent with anger, you hire a private investigator, who promptly tracks all of this activity back to that charming busker you passed a few weeks ago. It turns out he had a pretty sophisticated laptop running somewhere. He linked to your phone's bluetooth, and downloaded your personal contacts, your browser history and your calendar data. When you demand that the police arrest the scoundrel, your are informed that there was a very comprehensive service agreement in the guitar case, available for you to read. The service agreement clearly stipulated that by listening to his music, you agreed to share your private data with this musician and any third-party marketing associates he decides to sell your data to. If you didn't want to agree to those terms, you shouldn't have listened.

By Listening, You consent to the following terms . . .

Now, of course this story is made up. As far as I know, there is no league of evil buskers hijacking cellphone data. However, a very similar battle is being waged on the internet, and it's apparently entirely legal.

Internet Advertising: A Privacy Issue

Companies have been trying to monetize the internet from it's inception. I suspect the first advertisement went on-line about six picoseconds after the World Wide Web first allowed graphics. The first groans of disappointment were heard several minutes later, mostly due to dial-up connection speeds. And from that moment the game was afoot. Predator and prey, attack and parry, the battle has run for decades.

It's fair and reasonable for a site to put a few small ads on their site to help pay the piper. The problem is that dumb advertising doesn't pay nearly as well as directed advertising, and directed advertising requires data, not about broad demographics, but about you.

When you visit a page the advertiser wants to know your name, address, age, profession, financial status, hobbies and interests. And hey, if they can get your contact list, Facebook friends, browsing history, Safeway purchases and tax return they can either feed that into their increasingly-sophisticated ad-spewing algorithm or sell it to someone else. On the internet, you are the product.

Of course, few people will volunteer so much personal data, so companies have had to get very creative about harvesting it. If you don't believe me, install a tool like Ghostery or Lightbeam and take a close look at how many sites are tracking your on-line activities. And, because collecting all that data without permission is legally hinky, they've had bunch of friendly lawyers draft one-sided terms of service that you agree to simply by visiting their site.

The other day I followed a link to an article at CNN. I noticed that they had sixteen trackers, beacons, advertising affiliates etc. active on their site. Only after entering the site could I see their privacy policy, which basically says* they'll grab whatever data they or their undisclosed associates possibly can, and they'll use, store, or sell it at their pleasure. Then I checked their terms of service and found* that I had already agreed to all of their terms merely by visiting their site, and that (among other things) I had sworn to hold them legally blameless. Furthermore, they can change the one-sided terms at any time, without notice, and I will agree to those terms the next time I visit the site. The scary part is that CNN is more fair and user-friendly than many other sites. This isn't a bad example, it's the new normal.

Stop The Internet, I Want to Get Off

An ever-increasing percentage of internet users are using ad-blocking software, which strips the ads from a web-page, as well as thwarting many of the less-savory tools for collecting information about visitors to a site. This has elicited howls of foul-play from many content providers who rely on advertising for revenue. They point out that providing quality content, news for example, isn't free. In fact, providing accurate and up-to-date news is terribly expensive. If the users refuse to view advertising, who will pay for the service?

In recent weeks, several articles have claimed that using ad-blocking software is morally equivalent to piracy. I strongly disagree. Piracy is taking a commercial product offered for sale. If my favorite band is appearing in concert, I decide whether or not I'm willing to purchase a ticket, and whether I want front-row or nosebleed seats. If I sneak into the concert without paying, that's the moral equivalent of piracy.

Most websites are more like a busker — they offer a public performance and hope people will drop a buck in the hat. If someone walks by a busker and doesn't pay, it's not the same as sneaking into a concert hall. If you listen for a song or two, and fail to contribute, it's rude but it's not a crime.

So, at least for me, the ad-blocker stays. It's configured to allow non-intrusive advertising. I often put a few dollars in the virtual tip-jar of sites I visit frequently. But I absolutely disagree that by taking measures to protect my privacy from an increasingly-aggressive industry I am committing the moral equivalent of piracy. If it's a public performance, then contributions are voluntary. If they put their site behind a paywall, and find that some hacker has jumped the virtual fence, then they can claim piracy.

It's a jungle out there, kids. Stay safe, and play nice.

* I am not a lawyer, and this summary indicates my non-professional and incomplete understanding of the agreement in question. By breathing you agree to hold me blameless before the law for any misrepresentation. You also solemnly attest that I'm rubber and you're glue, and any nasty stuff you say bounces off me and sticks to you. Oh, and ice cream. You agree to buy me an ice-cream-cone if I ask, with sprinkles. See? User agreements are fun!