Is a European Union letter to a privacy advocate going to change the future of online advertising forever?

A few days ago we highlighted how certain websites are blocking ad-blockers themselves, things have certainly come to a head since then.

The Register carried a story recently which covered Alexander Hanff, privacy campaigner and programmer’s attempts to seek clarity on issues surrounding the blocking of ad-blockers from the European Union.

The issue is surrounding EU law that came into effect in May 2011 which requires that people consent before an anti-ad-blocker script is run on their computers.

Alexander Hanff has since then received a letter from the EU indicating that adblocking sniffer activities may actually be in violation of EU privacy laws.

What is the commotion all about?

We talked with Alexander Hanff, CEO at Think Privacy Inc. Think Privacy was founded by Hanff as a response to ‘continuing encroachment of Big Data on Privacy’.

It came to Hanff’s notice about 14 months ago that some publishers were circumventing adblocking tools in order to display ads. He decided to take upon himself to do something to remedy the situation.

Hanff has been involved in the public consultation that led to changes in the ePrivacy Directive in 2009 and has been involved in the issue for a very long time.

He tells Cointelegraph:

“It is my belief (now reinforced by the EU Commission opinion) that a user installing an adblocker is facilitating the recommendations of Recital 66 of 2009/136/EC which states that a citizen may use settings of a web browser or other applications as a means to indicate whether or not they consent to web sites storing and/or accessing stored information on their devices.”

According to Hanff, this recital was the result of very heavy lobbying, which he witnessed first hand during the public consultation, by the adtech industry. They knew that very few people ever change their default settings.

As such they would be able to continue to track and profile citizens on the basis that if a user doesn’t change the 3rd party cookie settings in their browser it could be implied that they were not objecting to such behaviour.

Alexander Hanff, CEO at Think Privacy Inc

Advertisements cuts both ways

If we talk with specificity to the European Union, it is clear that the specific action taken by an individual to block advertisements online is a desire to not be bothered. 

According to Alexander Hanff should be seen as a “clear and comprehensive indication that said citizen does NOT consent to such activities.”

The specific action we are talking about here is of course the addition of ad blocking software by individuals who want to block advertising.

However there are some web publishers that are still keen on displaying advertisements for the reason of garnering revenue or otherwise. They have been lately using special software to sniff out ad-blockers.

This has led to quite a lot of conflict of interests between people who want to protect their privacy by installing ad blockers and content publishers who want to continue to stream advertisements.

As recently as March 2016, reports that Forbes, the popular financial magazine, and Adblock Plus exchanged heated discussions in Austin, Texas over how and which advertisements are streamed on the web.

Forbes is notably famous now for denying readers access to its content if they are found to be using adblocking software. Ironically though Adblock Plus itself is streaming what it calls acceptable advertisements now.

The Impact of the European Union Letter

In light of the letter received by Alexander Hanff, we can be certain that things are about to change with respect to how advertisements are served online.

We put the question to Hanff himself and asked him what impact would the letter have in EU and beyond.

He told us that he had written to the President of the European Commission in February 2016 asking for a formal written opinion even though he had received verbal opinion in a meeting with them a year earlier.

Hanff is of the view that a written opinion would strengthen his legal cases.

As for what impact this written confirmation will have, he says:

“When you also consider that all the national regulators I have spoken to to date also agree with my analysis - it is likely that the campaign will lead to enforcement action either directly via the national regulators or as a result of infringement proceedings against Member States which fail to enforce.  As such I would say the impact is likely to be significant.”

Advertising and Adblock War, Let the user choose

There is a looming war between advertisers and adblockers that we have already covered in detail before. Probably advertising could still be a revenue model if it does not turn intrusive or adopts unethical practices.

However it is ultimately the web users that should get to decide what content they want to view. Publishers can offer incentives to web users to view advertisements in the form of cryptocurrencies.

There is already a dedicated currency for that in the form ADZcoin. There are also solutions like EMCLNX a p2p CPC distributed ads network which uses Emercoin.

There is even a new browser called Brave that pays users in Bitcoin to look at non-intrusive advertising from its own unique network. We, however, did ask Hanff on his views about how businesses can sustain themselves and be in compliance of privacy laws as well.

Hanff says to Cointelegraph:

“Publishers will not fix the adblocking problem with adblock blockers or adblock circumvention - they will not fix the adblocking problem by putting a wall up in front of their content, the only way they will fix the adblock problem (a problem they are responsible for) is to change their behaviour, stop abusing their readers and move towards more ethical & legal business models.”