they play and appreciate the best ones,
which can be every bit as good as the content they sponsor. These ads send strong
signals about brands, and yet they respect
our privacy, don’t plant tracking beacons
on us, and don’t lure us away from what
we’re doing. The attractive ads that populate Vogue and other high-quality offline
media are advertising’s wheat. The kind
that drive millions of us to use ad blockers are advertising’s chaff.
There are already some means for
threshing the two apart online. The
most popular ad blocker, Adblock Plus,
by default lets through what it calls
“acceptable” ads—though the company
also, controversially, makes money by
charging some companies whose ads it
accepts. Many tools to observe and block
tracking by ads—Bouncer, Disconnect,
DoNotTrackMe, Ghostery, Lightbeam,
NoScript, PrivacyFix, Privowny, and Web
Pal, to name a few—also have the effect
of blocking some of advertising’s chaff.
More important, any of these tools
can evolve to actually help match con-
sumer demand with advertisers’ supply
in ways that don’t rely on surveillance-
fed guesswork. I am talking about a tech-
nology that I call “intentcasting.” This
is where you and I do the advertising,
notifying a marketplace that we need
some product or service. For example:
“I need a sump pump for a flooded base-
ment, ASAP,” or “I need the sensor on my
Nikon camera cleaned without sending it
These requests (called “qualified
leads” on the receiving end) can also be
issued anonymously. ProjectVRM, which
I run at Harvard’s Berkman Center, lists
nearly two dozen intentcasting startups
and other development projects.
Creative ways of using existing ad
delivery networks to facilitate specific
customer requests are being developed.
Browser makers could also provide
intentcasting platforms. Mozilla, maker
of the Firefox browser, brought me in as
a consultant to (among other things) help
make that happen. And since Mozilla
open-sources its code, other browser
makers are free to join in as well.
Think about how much more sensible it would be to let customers roam
free and undisturbed with tools for giving
truly valuable information to the supply
side of the marketplace.
Then think about how
much money could be
saved by shutting down
the marketing machinery aimed at manipulating people who have
already marked the output of that machinery down to the value
of spam. Finally, think about how much
more pleasant the online world would be.
Until that future arrives, we should
permit advertising we actually can tolerate. This puts a burden on advertisers to
make clear that the wheat it produces is
good for us. The way to do that is by giving us the best of what advertising has
always been: a creative art form. Why
not use the Internet as a medium for that,
rather than just for fracking personal data
and using it to spam people with annoying guesses that mostly don’t work?
Otherwise, marketers are just inviting
you to field-strip them.
Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal
and a fellow of the Center for Information
Technology and Society at the University
of California, Santa Barbara. He is also an
alumnus fellow of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
When researchers asked people why they
started using an ad blocker, the primary
reason they gave was to avoid “misuse of