What if We All Sold Non-Creepy Advertising

This is an interesting perspective from Duck Duck Go founder Gabriel Weinberg. He is arguing for the return to the roots of digital advertising which is contextual advertising from behavioral advertising that we have today that enables online discrimanation, manipulation and filter bubbles. Contextual advertising prominence in his view will bring about innovation because more companies will be able to compete against big tech and with strong privacy regulation reduce data footprints of the consumers. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/opinion/facebook-google-privacy.html


Clear distinction made in the article between contextual and behavioral online ads:

… there are already two kinds of highly profitable online ads: contextual ads, based on the content being shown on screen, and behavioral ads, based on personal data collected about the person viewing the ad. Behavioral ads work by tracking your online behavior and compiling a profile about you using your internet activities (and even your offline activities in some cases) to send you targeted ads.

Contextual advertising doesn’t need to know anything about you: Search for “car” and you get a car ad. Over the past decade, contextual ads have been displaced by behavioral ads, aided by the rise of real-time bidding technology that auctions off each ad on a site based on user profiling.

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IMO we need to start by raising awareness. People need to understand that - in the vast majority of the industry - there is no such thing as free software or free app and by becoming a user, you might be helping behavioral advertising.


I think we will indeed see a swing back to contextual advertising based more on aggregated data than specific behavioural data on individuals. We are building a platform for families and know that we will not serve up advertising space or feature anything algorithmically driven. The bad news is that makes business model much more challenging, but the great news is that we have engaged with several large brands and there is definitely an openness to different ways of reaching consumers, without the need for extremely personalized data. So we are looking at different ways to partner where brands can have presence but without the need to collect data and behaviours. My hope is that we’ll start to see this in other platforms moving forward.


I’m a marketer by training. I used to work in the marketing industry and I don’t think anyone is going to go back with contextual ads. The problems is not the adoption of “users”–or even lack of information regarding this topic. The problem is that companies believe they can’t live without behavioral inputs.


I think the main advantage for companies to use the behavioral inputs is that the machine learning process can improve over time, trained by more and more inputs and feedbacks about how good its predictions were. Contextual inputs on the other hand lead to a static simple behaviour of the machine learning algorithms behind: once you have the best categorization with keywords etc. for your brand you can’t do anything but hope that users will reach you by behaving in the most rational way doing their search or browsing the web. With the behavioral approch instead you consider users as black boxes, you don’t assume nothing about how rational or irrational they behave. The algorithms simply acknoledge some correlations between two events: i.e. a button made red and bigger and more people clicking on it.
The first approach (contextual inputs) would have lead to a Semantic Web, a thing that now seems prehistoric but that was huge only 10 years ago: a perfect rational conceptualization of the web. This idea collapsed, while the idea of users as sources of statistical events and correlations grew immensely.

As your typical internet user I care much about my privacy. The almost no rules collection and use of data and tracking your every move are just to much for a lot of people. I think its now time to scale back the surveillance economy. Duck Duck Go counter the assumption that it is normal to surrender all the time our precious data when we are using the web. There must be regulation on privacy especially user consent and knowledge and transparency and accountability on the data economy. There are also other apps that capitalize on people privacy concerns. Proton is taking on Gmail. Firefox and Brave are privacy focused. OpenStreetMap is an alternative to Google maps. Hope there are more coming up. Regarding A.I if people give their consent to develop that kind of technology with their data that is fair enough. My point is I hope we can regain some reasonable control of our data.


Ads now are both contextual and surveillance-based (behavioural) at the same time and also can switch to the one which pays more automatically for each individual ad view. Removing surveillance would surely therefore reduce revenue. In practice it easy to demonstrate how blocking behavioural ads (surveillance based ads) will reduce revenue up to about 50% depending on the case.

The author from DuckDuckGo isn’t exactly neutral. His argument that non-surveillance ads can compete with surveillance-based ads is unsupported, in fact the evidence is strongly the other way around. He has failed to support his case, and even blurs reality with the “hard evidence” of what some advertisers believe in surveys.

So again the hypocrisy of the media, who are the main culprits of surveilling us. The New York Times article itself spies on all of us. In fact the site is programmed such that if you attempt to not be surveilled it will not show you the full article. Try visiting this article in private browsing mode which strips out surveillance information collected about you, and they will block you from viewing all but the first paragraph.

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I wish I could read the article but it’s paywalled. Does anyone have a TL;DR?

@borja Can you expand more on this? Why do you think this is? Do you think this is a permanent shift in the advertising industry, or more of a fad due to the marketing profession getting dazzled by new technology?

Especially now, when it’s already common knowledge that so many impressions and clicks are faked? And all the scandals related to brand safety? How can the demand still be so high?

@penmanship you can open the opinion piece with another browser without adblocker. The opinion piece is short.

@penmanship I wrote a small piece about this called Advertising Is a Disease That Thrives in the Attention Business.

I could write an entire book about this topic. But basically this isn’t new, privacy invasion is old hat. The difference now is that advertisers can get more and more data points and be more precise. In the past they couldn’t have access to (reliable) behavioral inputs because they didn’t have the right technology. If they had, they would’ve used them.

The advertising industry clearly has no ethics whatsoever. And the funny thing is that people who work in this industry, don’t see privacy violation as a big issue. It’s not that they’re bad people (I know a lot of people in that industry), but they live in their own bubble. (And maybe we do live in our own bubble too–who knows).

The other point you mention, @penmanship, about impressions and clicks, yes, they do know a lot of them are fake but they do it anyway.

Most of the times, unless we talk with the owner of the business, marketers who buy ads or marketers who work with influencers they do it just because “everyone else is doing it”. So if it fails, they’re not responsible–it’s what they’re supposed to do.

I’ve seen this first hand and it’s like the madness of crowds. Everyone knows it doesn’t work but still, most marketers do it anyway.


Yes I worked as well in influence marketing in the past - even if as engineer - and I confirm that. The main objective we had was to do better than the other ones, i.e. invent a better algorithm to identify the best influencers in a given topic/location/age/etc. The challenge becomes interesting per se, by itself. When we are deeply involved and challenged by a problem we have to solve, the only thing we think about is how to solve it. We have no room for other considerations. This is the reason why we don’t have to leave the market fix the inhumane technology that it now creates. We can’t afford to leave the world in the hands to engineers, super excited of applying their creativity and expertise in whatsoever domain. They should live, breathe and work within an ethical framework that limits and drives their efforts.


If it’s only a herd effect supporting behavioral ads, then maybe the herd should move to a different grazing pasture. There is good reason to think contextual advertising via direct partnerships with publishers is better anyway.

I finally found a non-paywalled source for the article (no, I’m not going to create an NYT account):


Here is the major point:

A recent poll by Digiday of publishing executives found that 45 percent of them saw no significant benefit from behavioral ads, and 23 percent said they actually caused a decline in revenue.

This matches my own experience having worked for a digital content publisher that sold ad space both directly and through AdX. Direct-sold ads are more lucrative. We could negotiate our own price with our customers, cut out the middlemen, and guarantee that our users actually will see the ads. And we could even track clicks in-house, although even our major sponsors did not request it.

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One small rebuttal to @Free. The above is only true for ads distributed on programmatic ad networks. Of course contextual ads will be weaker inside those highly controlled environments, because with either type of ads publishers are still getting all of the downsides of ad-blocking vulnerability, virus-infested and Bitcoin-mining ads, and letting Google’s algorithms dictate your prices, all of which causes the value of their ad space to drop.

No argument here on the media being hypocritical.

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@Free the New York Times is very clear that it is collecting, using and sharing data and using targeted ads. But they think that the data economy needs reform. They have right now the Privacy Project which explores the data economy and where it’s taking us, the tradeoffs, the privacy issue, the consequences etc. Yes the online advertising entities are using both the contextual ads and behavioral ads but what I would like to see as a consumer is the use and prominence of contextual ads over the behavioral ads.

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