AppEsteem Blog

Not yours! Consumer-linkable information belongs to the consumer.

Imagine you walk into my bookshop. As you peruse my books, I take note of where you pause and what you pick up. I ask you questions about what you're looking for, and I make suggestions. I'm hoping that the more I get to know you, the better I can serve you, and the better chance that you'll become a regular.

My imaginary bookshop is small, and my landlord offered me a free security system. It uses video cameras focused on my aisles, and it sends the video feed to the cloud alerting me when it thinks somebody steals a book.

Now imagine that once you leave my bookshop, I take what I learn about you and turn that into extra money for me: I sell your wish list to others, and I get advertisers to pay me to target you based on your book interests. Also, that free security system let my landlord do the same, based on what else it learned about you while analyzing the security tapes.

My imaginary bookshop sounds both big brother-ish and unfair to my customers. Fortunately, it would be hard for me to run this kind of bookshop, because I'd have to put a big notice on my door that says something like this, "Attention: your entry into this bookshop is your consent to being tracked and targeted for future advertising, both by me and by my landlord, who in return has provided us a free security system. Scan here to see the full privacy policy."

My guess is that if I put that kind of disclosure on my imaginary bookshop, I wouldn't get many customers coming through my door. My bookshop would be rather empty, because although customers are happy if I use data linked to them to give them a better shopping experience, they would not be happy if I was using their information to monetize or trade or sell. The reason? Because any consumer-linkable information I collect belongs to the consumer, not to me.

This makes sense in the physical world, but somehow the Internet doesn't work this way. It should, but we're not there yet.

Somehow the Internet has convinced us that the price of better searches and entertainment only comes when others are allowed to trade, sell, or monetize the information that can be linked back to us. That's not fair, because your non-public information belongs to you, and, except for well-regulated and limited scenarios, nobody else should have the right to sell it, or use it to make money, or permit others to gather it from you.

In what kinds of scenarios can making a business out of consumer-linkable information be acceptable? Two examples come to mind: medical information and credit scores. Unlike the Internet, both medical information and credit scores involve well-regulated industries that have been built up around controlling how this information is protected, limited in its usage, and used appropriately. Strong consumer-focused laws make it clear that you own your data, and they provide protection against misuse. Your consent must be obtained, and only for specific use cases. We think these examples provide good models for how consumer-linkable information collected on the Internet should be handled.

Just because a company knows something personal about you, they don't have the right to sell or make money from others or trade it to somebody else. And they don't have the right to let others collect more linkable information about you. If a company does any of this, especially online while you visit its websites or use its apps, that company is a polluter, and they should be stopped.

Here's just a few examples of how a website or app can pollute your internet experience and take advantage of your linkable information:

  • Google and Bing give you free searches in exchange for learning what you search for and click on, then use your information to charge advertisers to target you while you search.
  • Taboola and Outbrain pay more ad revenue to news websites who let them track and target you based on what they learn about your interests.
  • Google gives tens of millions of websites free analytics in exchange for collecting data on what you do on those websites.
  • Meta, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and so many other ad networks have huge businesses based on them selling advertisers access to your information so you can be better targeted.

All of the above examples are unacceptable, because they're all trading in something that doesn't belong to them: information linkable back to you. Only polluters aggregate other people's linkable information and try to turn it into money. Only polluters claim that you gave them consent to resell and repackage and build businesses around your linkable information.

Meanwhile, the privacy debate swirling around various governments seems to be focused on how consumers can request to see what linkable information companies are exploiting, and whether they can request to be forgotten. There is talk about "do not sell" flags in browsers that websites and ad networks can voluntarily consume, but without any teeth behind them. We think these initiatives are missing the basic point: no company should consider consumer-linkable information theirs to resell, to trade, or to monetize outside of providing better and relevant first-party experiences directly back to the consumer.

The BigTech companies who grow their businesses by exploiting consumer-linkable information have been successful in fending off regulation of how they purchase, aggregate, use, and monetize this information. This needs to change.

This is why we've added two new polluter indicators, focused on customer-linkable information, to our list. AP-10 says companies can collect and use consumer-linkable information to improve their direct services, but they can't use it to sell, monetize, or improve third-party services. AP-11 says you can't let others collect consumer-linkable information on your site or in your apps.

It's time to call out this exploitative behavior for what it is: internet pollution. It's time for it to stop.


Why Should You Have an Ad-Blocker?

Unfortunately, browsing the web can be dangerous due to the many potential threats lurking in cyberspace. Hackers and scammers steal personal information like passwords and bank accounts, and they infect your devices with malware and unwanted software. Many websites contain inappropriate content that can be accessed by minors - exposing them to explicit material they may lead them to interact with online predators.

But outside of the obvious threats that you already be aware of, new threats have emerged from the countless advertisements we face online. 

What is Ad-Pollution?

Ad pollution is how we refer to the unfair digital advertisements that bombard us while we're online. This occurs on websites, social media platforms, and other digital outlets. 

In best-case scenarios, ad pollution disrupts your overall media consumption experience with slower loading times clogged-up feeds. 

In worst-case scenarios, ad pollution delivers you into the hands of opportunistic cybercriminals by impersonating brands and directing users to malicious sites that host ransomware or steal your login credentials and other sensitive financial information. This technique is referred to as malvertising.

The Rise of Malvertising on Major Search Engines 

Malvertising attackers buy ads on legitimate search engines and advertising networks on popular websites, including video streaming sites, news sites, blogs, and more. The ads lure you to download unwanted software, or to run malicious code.

Malvertising campaigns are designed to be hard to detect and often use the latest technology in order to stay ahead of security measures. By reaching the web pages through native ads and tricking you that they’re just other content on the page that is safe to click, criminals can steal your personal information such as credit card details or login credentials. They may also redirect users to phishing websites or install malicious software onto a user's computer without them realizing.

For this reason, it's important for you to be aware of the risks associated with malvertising and take steps to protect yourself. The easiest way to protect yourself from the dangers associated with malvertising and the annoyances associated with ad pollution is to install a reputable ad-blocking app. 

What is an Ad-Blocker? 

Ad-blocking software is designed to block ads, especially ad pollution, from appearing on websites. It works by detecting and preventing the loading of online advertisements, including those in pop-up windows, banner ads, streaming audio or video ads, auto play video ads, and more.

Ad-blocking technology can be found as an add-on or extension for popular web browsers like Chrome, Edge, and Firefox. It also exists as a standalone application that works with any browser. By blocking these intrusive advertisements, users are able to browse the internet without being inundated with unwanted content. 

Additionally, ad-blocking technology can help protect user privacy while browsing online by blocking third party cookies or tracking scripts used by advertisers to track user activity across different sites. Overall, ad-blocking software is a great way for users to reclaim control over their online experience.

The FBI Recommends the use of Ad-Blocking Software 

For most of the same reasons listed above, last fall the FBI formally recommended the use of Ad Blocking software to protect internet users from malicious online advertisements, particularly the kind which can be used to spread malware and viruses that can damage your computer or steal personal information.

The FBI's public service announcement, titled “Cyber Criminals Impersonating Brands Using Search Engine Advertisement Services to Defraud Users,” recommended that individuals, “Use an ad blocking extension when performing internet searches. Most internet browsers allow a user to add extensions, including extensions that block advertisements. These ad blockers can be turned on and off within a browser to permit advertisements on certain websites while blocking advertisements on others.”

By blocking ads, users are also protecting themselves from data mining practices by companies who use online ads to track user behavior in order to target advertising more effectively. Earlier this year, social media giant Meta (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger) was fined 390 million Euro for violating the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

In that case, the courts said that Meta failed to protect user privacy and collected large amounts of personal data without obtaining permission from their customers. This allowed them to gain access to sensitive information such as age, gender, and political views that would be difficult for any other company to acquire through traditional methods. And it made it easier for attackers to trick you with their malvertising.

Ad-Blocking software provides a layer of protection against these threats and helps you maintain your privacy while browsing the internet. With online scams netting cybercriminals billions of dollars yearly, it is important for you to take steps towards safeguarding your information when surfing the web, and Ad Blocking software is one of the easiest and most effective ways to do this.


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