Of Content And Cookies: Why The Web Should Go On Strike

There can be no doubt that the biggest issue to arise over the last few years, in terms of threats to technology companies, is the rising level of concern, both in terms of public opinion and political attention, around privacy.

Whether it be Google’s Street View cars ‘accidentally’ storing wifi details, Facebook’s Beacon publicising your shopping habits or iPhones logging your every move, it seems that the technology giants can’t do anything without pissing off consumers and privacy campaigners.

And, now, it seems that politicians have decided that enough is enough and that the best way to earn votes when they can’t fix the economic mess they’ve got us into most important issue facing the world right now is whether Facebook knows that you like fishing and is willing to use that data to target its clients’ ads. Both in the US and the EU, administrators are suggesting legislation that could stop websites using personal data, generally in the form of cookies, to better target ads.

Broadstuff, a blog I normally agree with strongly thinks that this is a) unsurprising and b) (surprisingly to me) a good thing.

It is not.

There is no doubt that tech companies are often far too blasé about their customers’ privacy, as shown by the almost surprised reaction of Apple to the fuss around the location data they were storing, or the way that Sony are trying to pin the blame for their own incompetence on a bunch of hacker brats. But just because of this, doesn’t mean that we should all race to block the use of cookies out of some distorted Orwellian fear.

You often read that Facebook, Google and the likes sell consumer data to advertisers.

They don’t. I can promise you that.

They take briefs from clients, often agencies like the one I work for, and then use very clever algorithms to target people based on that (anonymous) data. Do you want to know who sells your data to advertisers? The same governments that are trying to pin this sort of sh*t on publishers.

But so what if governments sell your data? It’s still annoying that Google & Facebook target ads and emails at me, right?

Well, no, because that’s the cost of us receiving free content, particularly when so many people bitch and moan about having to pay for anything. No matter what the hippie-geeks amongst us might like to think, everything has a price, someone has to pay it, and the web is no different.

Everything costs, whether it’s bandwidth, developers to build a site, or writers to create the content (unless you’re Ariana Huffington of course, in which case you get to have your cake, and everyone else’s, and eat them all). But as no-one seems to be prepared to pay for this sort of content online, the publishers have no option but to rely on advertising. And, in order to maximise the potent advertising revenue, they use your data to better target ads (for a look at how why, you can see a presentation I recently gave at SMX Sydney).

It’s what’s called a value exchange: you let us put ads in front of you (hopefully relevant ones), and we’ll give you all this lovely content for free.

But it seems that this society of entitlement that we’ve created is getting greedier. We want the free content, but now we’re not even willing to ‘pay’ for it with our attention to ads. So, how about the publishers see whether the world really can do without advertising? I’d love it if all of the world’s major publishers all decided to go dark for a day, or a week, in protest at the idiotic attacks on their revenue models by people who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery without bankrupting the brewery.

A while back a bunch of ad agencies in Belgium did something similar in protest at outrageous pitch demands, but to be honest the world is likely to miss The Guardian, New York Times, Facebook et al a lot more than it would JWT Brussels, though I’ve no doubt they do a lot of good work. And before anyone comes in banging on about how citizen journalism would just step in and fill this void, can I respectfully say ‘bollocks’: most UGC is informed or inspired by professional media content, and the rest of it is crap videos of cats falling off pianos.

Before I go, I should repeat the fact that I don’t think the industry is blameless here, and I hope that the efforts at self-regulation being suggested by many agencies, organisations and publishers go some way to easing people’s worries.

But, at the end of the day, the public & the politicians that try to whip them into a frenzy to draw attention from the steaming pile of shit they’ve managed to make of everything else serve them need to understand that websites aren’t produced by fairies and goblins, but by people who need paying.

And if we aren’t willing to part with cash for the content that we gobble up so greedily every day, we either have to be willing to go without it, or to allow those content creators to get paid some other way.

*As with everything on this site, it’s solely my own opinion, and nothing to do with my employer. Just in case you were wondering.

Image by Josh Hallett on flickr


  1. Who is the target of this action, the customers or the regulators?

    As with all strikes, the actions are geared around customers but the targets of those actions “the management” are always unaffected! I doubt whether the average customer is that bothered really – in the grand scheme of things about whether or not Apple knows where you’ve been or what sites you’ve visited.

    Personally, my issue with so called targeting is that so often it is carried out with such a blunt force approach that is annoys me as a customer. I would love a system that knew what i wanted to find out more about, before i even knew it and served me an appropriate product or service at the right time, unlike some sites that are still trying to sell me radiator leak repair from Halfords, which to be honest if I hadn’t sorted by now would have led to a blown engine!

  2. I agree that it would be great if ads were even more targeted, and also doubt that most consumers probably wouldn’t really care that much about targeting if they understood it.

    There’s an excellent piece on Wired which suggests that US sites might simply stop serving content to the EU, as they won’t be able to monetise it. I was also talking with someone who suggested that content providers could simply show blank sites to users who refuse to accept cookies.

    I’m guessing that would be even less popular with consumers, and might cause a rethink, which this desperately needs.

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