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Advertising Censorship Editorial The Internet

Power To the Pop-Ups 204

Slashdot frequent contributor Bennett Haselton writes a piece advocating for Pop-Ups and even more obtrusive advertising. But not for the reasons you might think. He says "Annoying pop-up ads have been a great friend to Internet freedom, by enabling the operation of proxy sites that would be too expensive to operate otherwise. With the rising costs of making new proxy sites to stay ahead of the 'censorware' companies, even more intrusive ads could be an even bigger friend to Internet freedom. Got any ideas for how those more intrusive ads could work?" Clicky clicky below to read his point.

Most news and information websites carry advertisements, but usually not more than one pop-up ad, if they have pop-ups at all. This is because the costs of running the sites are low enough that they can usually pay for their costs with revenue from regular ads. Surely the site owners would like the extra money that they could get from pop-ups, if their viewers had nowhere else to go. But if they tried to get away with too many pop-ups on a typical news site, visitors would just leave for their competitors' sites instead. Competition keeps the "prices" — in terms of the ads that you have to view in order to visit a website — low.

By contrast, most proxy sites [that's not a link to one of my sites, so quit yer whining] — sites that you can use to get around Internet blocking, by using a form to type in the URL of the site that you want to access so the proxy site will fetch its contents for you — are festooned with pop-up ads, sometimes on every page load. As I can easily attest, the bandwidth and hardware costs of running a proxy site are sufficiently high that there would be no way to pay for the sites with the revenue from normal banner ads and AdSense blurbs. It's no exaggeration to say that most proxy sites, which enable people to circumvent government filtering in countries like China and Iran (not to mention helping millions of students get on Facebook and YouTube from school), would not exist without the pop-up ads to prop them up. (This may not be true of a proxy site that your high school classmate set up for himself and some friends, but it's true of most proxies created to serve a wide audience.)

Unfortunately it's becoming more expensive to run an effective proxy service that enables users to get around most enterprise filtering programs. If it gets to the point where normal pop-up ads do not bring in enough revenue to pay for the service, we might need a new breed of even more intrusive (and better-paying) ads. More intrusive than the drop-down ads that play noisy videos. More intrusive than the Flash animations that crawl across the screen on top of the words you're trying to read. I'm going to argue that a company that figures out how to run the most intrusive ads of all, could be the new best friend of Internet freedom. But first a note about why the costs are increasing.

Two years ago, I thought the cost of maintaining a proxy site to help people get around Internet filtering, would steadily fall, as bandwidth and processing power got cheaper. But bandwidth and hosting costs didn't drop as much as I had hoped, and the cost of maintaining an effective anti-filtering service has actually gone up, due to some advances made by Internet censoring programs. In 2007, the then-current versions of filtering programs like Smartfilter, Websense, and the 8e6 R3000 would typically only download updates to their blacklists once in the middle of the night. This meant that I could mail out a new proxy site to my proxy mailing list just after midnight, and it would be accessible to the mailing list subscribers all of the following day. (You wouldn't be able to get to them if your local network administrator subscribed to the mailing list and added the new sites to the local blacklist as soon as they came out, but most network admins didn't bother.) As of 2010, though, the latest versions of most enterprise filters are configured to automatically update their lists every hour or two. So to stay ahead of the filters, I have to mail out several sites every morning to different portions of the mailing list, so that the filtering companies generally learn about them and block them at different points throughout the day. Just registering several .com domains every day is not cheap. (GoDaddy sells .info domains for less than a dollar apiece, but this proved to be an ineffective solution because too many censored networks simply block all .info sites.)

There are also the increasing costs of maintaining compatibility with complex sites like Facebook and YouTube. Accessing Facebook through a proxy is still a hit-or-miss proposition. (I steer my users toward accessing the mobile version of Facebook, , through the proxy, because it's a stripped-down version built for compatibility with mobile devices, and this simpler version is less likely to break when accessed with a proxy script.) YouTube access depends mainly on whether the latest YouTube plugin for the Glype proxy script is compatible with the current YouTube interface, and likewise can be working one week and broken the next. It's not hard to run a proxy site that provides compatibility with the most popular sites that people want to access, but it takes real work -- you can't just upload the script and forget about it.

(Many users in censored countries also use tools like Tor and UltraSurf to bypass their country's filters, but some of my contacts in those countries say that those tools are often too slow for them, so they end up using proxy sites instead. Since UltraSurf and Tor are free services, funded by donations and staffed by volunteers, the demand for those services can easily swell until they slow down from the overload.)

So what happens if maintaining an effective anti-censorship service becomes too expensive to pay for using just pop-up ads? Well, you could charge money for using your proxy site, but that brings with it a whole host of other problems. You have to set recurring billing in order to be paid through PayPal or some similar service, and run the risk of your funds being frozen if someone files a crank complaint against you. If one user has a paid account, you have to worry about them sharing the account with their friends or posting the account credentials on a public message board. And there are many proxy operators (including me) who would like to think that the proxies do provide a valuable public service to the world, and wouldn't want to exclude people who can't afford the monthly access fee.

I propose that ads which are even more intrusive than pop-ups -- thus grabbing more of the user's attention and providing more value to the advertiser, thus enabling them to pay more to sites which run the ads -- would enable proxy site operators to fund more of the costs of their operation, and hence would be a Good Thing. The existence of such intrusive ads does not mean that they would suddenly be plastered all over every proxy site. If your user base can be served for a lower cost, then you don't have to "charge" as much (in terms of advertisement intrusiveness) to use your proxy service. Over 90% of the traffic to my proxy sites is to domains that have already been blocked a long time ago by Websense, Smartfilter, Lightspeed, and most of the rest of the censorware companies. Apparently there are a lot of users who are on censored networks and who need proxies, but whose network admins just haven't updated the blacklists in a very long time, or who haven't paid the subscription fee to keep downloading database updates. Since you don't need to register 10 new domain names every day to serve that audience, there would continue to be proxies for those users with less-intrusive ads on them. But the more-intrusive (and higher-paying) ads would also enable proxy webmasters to serve a "higher-end" audience, the ones who need several new sites every day, to stay ahead of the more frequently-updated filters.

I can think of several ways that more intrusive ads might work. My favorite would be a "quiz" model wherein a drop-down advertisement appears in front of the site you're trying to access, consisting of some promotional content, and a little form at the bottom. In order to make the drop-down ad disappear, you have to read the ad and fill in the answers to some one-word questions or multiple-choice questions about the content, to prove you actually read it.

Perhaps I'm biased in favor of this idea because I'm tired of ads that contain splashy graphics and expensively licensed music and never contain any actual information. The only television ad that I can recall viewing in the past year which prompted me to actually buy the advertiser's product, was the Pizza Hut ad announcing that you could get a large pizza with any number of toppings for $10. That's what I want in an ad. I give you $10. You give me a pizza. (And this extra plug for their $10 pizza promotion, can be considered a thank-you to them for running an ad that actually had something to say.) Most ads on TV are far less informative, serving mostly to give a glossy sheen to the advertiser's brand name. Yet these ads are paid for by corporations who do the market research and the focus grouping, so the ads must work. Many economists, including Tim Harford in The Undercover Economist and Steven Landsburg in The Armchair Economist, have explained why companies pay for ads that do nothing except look expensive: Because they prove to the viewer that the company intends to be around for a long time, in order to capitalize on the long-term exposure given to them by the ad. This has become so standard that making an ad which actually gives the user information seems tawdry by comparison. The most ghetto-sounding word in TV advertising is "infomercial".

But I think that some companies could benefit from greater exposure of actual information about their product, just as there are companies that pay for informercials. And if a company like Linksys really wanted to run a splashy ad that contained no actual information, and then make me answer some questions at the bottom like:

Linksys is:
(a) the leading manufacturer of wireless adapter cards
(b) the leading manufacturer of wireless routers
(c) the leading manufacturer of wireless monitoring cameras
(d) all of the above!!!

then that's their prerogative. The quiz-advertisement model only says that advertisers can require users to answer a question before closing the ad; it would be up to the advertiser to decide what question works best. I suspect that the actual-information model would work better for quiz ads, but advertisers could try both and see what works.

There are already some websites that require you to "complete an offer" (i.e. become a customer of some third-party company, at least for a free trial period) in order to use their services, but most proxy sites have so far declined to carry advertisements like these. Evidently their users consider this too high of a price to pay to access a proxy site. Filling out an offer is not just time-consuming, but leaves the door open to future problems -- will they sell your name or your e-mail address? Will they make it hard to cancel your "free trial", and then start billing you? The problem seems to be that there is too large of a gap between the "fees" associated with the two options -- a normal advertisement doesn't bring enough money to the proxy operator, but a complete-an-offer advertisement is such a steep price that most users won't pay it. The "quiz ad" is like a "fee" that falls nicely in the middle -- a smaller time commitment, and your worries are over after you fill in the quiz and hit submit.

If the very thought of such an ad still seems too annoying for words, then I think that objection misses the point. If the revenue from "normal" ads (pop-ups, drop-downs, AdSense widgets) is enough to pay for the operation of a "high-end" proxy service (catering to the people who need several new proxies every day), then such proxy services with "normal" ads will continue to exist. Indeed, anyone who tried running the more annoying "quiz ads" would not be able to get off the ground, because users would flock to the competing proxy sites using normal ads instead. If "high-end" proxy services flourished that were using quiz ads, it would only be because you simply can't provide a high-end service for less money than the quiz ads are bringing in.

It's possible that some advertisers would be reluctant to display ads in a manner that users would continue an annoying obstacle, but I'm not sure that's really a problem. The most intrusive advertisements currently in use on mainstream websites are probably the "premercials" that display before some news videos on and other news sites. Unlike drop-down ads which can be closed with the click of a button, the video pre-mercials can't be skipped. Since you're actually expecting the news video to come up immediately when you click the link to start playing the video, you would think that many users would grit their teeth in annoyance upon seeing the "pre-mercial", and transfer that irritation to the advertiser's brand name, but there are so many big-name companies buying those pre-mercials that they must believe it's having a positive effect. So intrusiveness itself doesn't seem to tarnish a brand.

But I don't propose to micro-manage suggestions for how the more intrusive ads would look, or how advertisers should tailor their ads to fit the format. I'm just saying that a new breed of more intrusive ads, even more annoying than pop-ups, might be just what we need to stay ahead of increasingly sophisticated Internet censors. It's still technically quite trivial to release a steady stream of new proxy sites that defeat most Internet filters, but it costs money to buy domains and maintain the service, and the money has to come from somewhere.

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Power To the Pop-Ups

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