An Internet Without Ads?

Guys, what would the world be like if ads were banned from the internet? Like completely - zero ads.

Does anyone have a perspective on this? Or know of any good resources that have considered this scenario?



Hi Ben,

I haven’t come across resources that explicitly talk about banning ads from the Internet. Personally speaking, I feel this is a quite radical proposal. Ads indeed raise many issues because of the asymmetric power relations between consumers and advertisers & data brokers alike, but I will rather think that it is nearly impossible to image such a scenario happen. To me there are three main reasons:

  1. Ads are central to marketing, without them, some businesses will suffer from little exposure compared to bigger players (let’s put aside the fact that big techs like Facebook and Google essentially dominate the online marketing game for a while).
  2. The attention-seeking game will always be taken advantage of by attention merchants regardless of the media. I recommend the book Attention Merchants written by Tim Wu here if you are interested in the evolution of attention grabbing. Essentially, this game has been going on throughout the evolution of technology (from physical posters, newspaper, public radio to televisions, computers and mobile phones). Chris makes a point in the book that attention merchants will always find a way to exploit a new media before it’s heavily regulated. The Internet is no exception.
  3. The definition of ads has been blurred as advertisers find new approaches of marketing. For example, native marketing and content marketing make the art of selling pretty intricate. Some consumers cannot even tell that a piece of article they are reading is actually promoting a certain product until they reach the end of the post (it’s so prevalent in China). Other examples include influencer marketing.

In short, it would be great if we as consumers don’t see distractive and exploitative ads when we ought to have pleasant online experience. I think when we talk about banning ads entirely on the web, we need to think what’s the root problem underlying it that we really want to tackle. Hope this helps.

Hey Saiyu, thanks so much for your response!

I actually recently read Attention Merchants which sparked this question in my head. When taken with Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, both authors make the case for me that advertising is pretty close to the root of the problem.
Of the myriad concerns for online advertising, I’ll touch on two:

  1. Firstly, advertising is ultimately shaping the internet. As Wu indicates, users’ wellbeing is not the primary concern for big tech, attention is. So, online products like Facebook are being developed to maintain attention which is more valuable for advertisers, not users. The result is a social network that encourages bias and negativity rather than improving social experience general wellbeing.

  2. Advertising is overly pervasive. The race to win advertisers has inspired big tech to battle it out for our data. These products are so addictive that we have literally given up our privacy to use them. The result here is that big tech can now advertise with such precision that people’s sense of agency is now being tested (what will this look like in 5-10 years’ time?). At least with traditional forms of advertising, it could be escaped. Now, if you’re online, it’s practically impossible to escape ads that are unofficially designed just for you.

These two points are very simple interpretations of Wu and Zuboff’s work. But I think they’re accurate. I think that advertising is the root of the problem on the internet.
I understand that online advertising has improved competition for small businesses. But at a massive cost. Users’ wellbeing. And of course amplified civil unrest.

To be clear, I agree that total banning of online advertising is radical. I don’t think it would be pragmatic to ban ads completely especially considering influencer and native marketing. But I do think it’s a worthwhile thought experiment to consider an internet without advertising.

What do you think?

Interesting conversation you and @Saiyu have. I don’t have much time for an elaborate response, but I wanted to add that there’s another - less often mentioned - aspect to this.

The actual role of advertising in surveillance capitalism is diminishing. More and more the advertising serves as a convenient means - a tool - to get hold of the humongous amounts of data that Big Tech needs to feed their AI/ML systems to lift them to higher levels of ‘intelligence’. The race for AI tech domination leads to exponential growth of the amounts of data that are needed.

In the theoretical case where online advertising would no longer exist, there would still be the unsatisfiable need to absorb ever more big data, and surveillance capitalism would just continue.

Right, and I can only imagine the kind of tactics that big tech would use to capture the data in non-commercial ways. Thanks for that input Arnold. More food for thought.

Very insightful thoughts from you both. Indeed, we as users are the products instead of the actual customers. I personally will find the Internet a much calmer place if ads are banned from it, but I also think the solution may lie in somewhere on a continuum - letting ads pop up nearly everywhere on the web is a no for users like me, but letting ads completely disappear from the web may be a no for another party (most businesses in this case). I don’t have much knowledge in economics, but I feel that we may need to define what the Internet serves to do for all. If it shouldn’t be a market where financial/commercial exchanges happen, banning ads seems like a good move. If it can serve as a market, then banning ads entirely may be a far too off.

This is where policies and regulations may come in place to try defining that line. Even if we will see a day when ads are entirely banned, I will imagine that there will be different phases gradually rolled out. Maybe users like us can choose to be off - some people can choose to shut down all ads for them but some people want ads to guide their purchasing decisions. Maybe one day the value of personal data can be quantified so that the dominant online business model can be disrupted to safeguard users’ agency. Maybe the fiduciary relationship can be established on the Internet to surveil the practice of big techs as well…it’s definitely a complicated issue to be solved.

Yeah, it’s hard to image a scenario where ads are simply just shut off and banned. To expand on the thought experiment, I can see how ads could suit both parties. As long as they are infrequent and not in the way. Journalistic sites really suffer artistically when annoying and distracting ads pop up.

I guess it feels cheap. And it feels like we should be advanced enough by now to not simply accept ads being fed to us everywhere we click.
It really does just come down to policy. It’s great to see here in Australia that the government is at least willing to contest Facebook and Google.

Thank you for your input!

We know what a ad-free Internet was like before Bill Clinton and Gore opened up the “information superhighway” to commercial interests. I sat in a graduate seminar at UCSD in 1995 debating whether this technology with enormous liberatory and democratic potential would serve people’s interests first or corporate profits. We now know how that worked out. When a system is designed entirely to profit from exploiting innate human weaknesses for the sole purpose of accumulating and concentrating vast disparities in wealth is not going to end well. Especially when it’s this weird, dystopian cycle of harvesting people’s souls – their psychological triggers, intimate and hard-wired animal reactions to fear, threat, insecurity, group identity, etc. – as a commodity to be sold. In a similar way to extractive industries such as pharma in the opioid “epidemic,” or the coal industry in parts of Appalachia, the enormous social costs and unpaid labor are passed from the companies to the public, to communities that are impacted most severely due to historical economic and social marginalization. And the most vulnerable are affected because of a lack of fair taxation and investment in basic public infrastructures such as health care, access to healthy, affordable food, transportation and a media ecosystem that does not serve their interests. I think ads are not the central issue; it’s that Big Tech has all the power and little to no accountability or incentive to design a media system that purposefully serves the common good. I spent the past 25 years since sitting in that seminar working and fighting hard for the liberatory and democratic potential of the Internet. At this point, we (I am a journalist) have lost the battle. Every day I have to find a new sense of hope, a task that is becoming more and more difficult

Thanks for that insight John. A very grim summary indeed.
An optimistic point is that in Tim Wu’s other book The Master Switch he discusses how monopolies rise and fall. Granted, today’s tech monopolies have special access to our information that is used to influence behaviour, there is still noise being made about unethical tech. Perhaps enough noise could possibly lead to a transition to more ethical tech?
Ads may not be the central reason, but surely one of the central reasons? Profit, in the West, is the motivation to design tech that is habit-forming.
Ads, in my view, is the license that led to the situation we now found ourselves in. Of course, without online ads, bad actors would still try and find a way to manipulate people. But from my perspective (at the moment) I see ads as one of the major culprits of unethical practices/products.

I wonder what the internet was like prior to Clinton’s change. Could you give your thoughts one that period?

You’ll find a whole generation of early web adopters being very nostalgic to this time, and even working to bring it back. There wasn’t really all the quick paced social media, but instead there were bulletin boards and forums discussed all kinds of things. There were trolls, of course, but much less toxicity. There was excitement and great expectation of what the web would bring.

I was at university and using Gopher (which is being re-developed in a modern version), when the Web was ‘switched on’. Quickly all kinds of people started to publish their personal website. There was search facility, most was just hyperlinked together. There were directory pages and webrings that led you to random websites. Later on the first search engines (like AltaVista) appeared. The wonder was in enormous variety of, mostly personal, content, that provided a peek in people’s lifes.

There were Ads, but they were untargeted. They would be related to the topic of the website or current page you were on, or based on the search queries you typed in. There was no tracking and hardly any personal data collection, let alone data market that trade your PII.

Here’s a website that breathes the look & feel of the old internet:

And if you want you can still browse The Old Net (see also HN Discussion)

Now for the good news

This web of old still exists!

But it is kept away from people, because there’s less money to be made there. You have to find it yourself, and the Big Tech platforms don’t make that easy for you. Google Search hides it far down in the search results where you don’t go to. Google and Facebook have their users captured in their bubbles, and are reinforcing their grip all of the time.

If you want to be part of ‘the better web’, for starters, it helps to switch to another (privacy-respecting) search engine, like DuckDuckGo. Then in your browsing you start favoring the personal websites and blogs again, rather than all the commercial low-quality blog, crappy content aggregators and content scrapers / republishers that pollute the web.

You can then help make it more prominent again.

  • Don’t share links to the crappy stuff. Take some time to find if an article was also published on a personal blog and share that URL.
  • Do not share Google AMP links, the evil way in which the web will become Google’s Web. It helps if you have Firefox instead of Chrome here.
  • Install ad-blockers (I have both Privacy Badger and uBlock Origin) and prefer sites that were designed to have little or no trackers.
  • Join the ad-free Fediverse where you find non-toxic, people-oriented / people-driven social media alternatives, like Mastodon (replaces Twitter).
  • Get your own domain name, start a blog, and use it also for your email alias (even if you use Gmail, which you should not).
  • Install an RSS aggregator and subscribe to RSS feeds of good websites you find. They will lead you to other websites with their own feeds.
  • And then, gradually, you start adopting the culture of the IndieWeb, the people-focused alternative to the “corporate web”.

Some great links here Arnold! Thanks for that. And some great advice too. I recently got onto DuckDuckGo and am gradually adjusting nicely.
I’m glad you shared those dot points too because I’ve been looking at how I can transition to a less corporate UX.
Perhaps a hipster revolution is possible! :laughing:

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