Is Momentum Shifting Toward a Ban on Behavioral Advertising? – The Markup
I really hope that Betteridge’s Law doesn’t apply to this headline.
I really hope that Betteridge’s Law doesn’t apply to this headline.
While the dream of “personalized” ads has turned out to be mostly a nightmare, adtech has built some of the wealthiest companies in the world based on tracking us. It’s no surprise to me that as Members of the European Parliament contemplate tackling these many harms, Big Tech is throwing millions of Euros behind a “necessary evil” PR defense for its business model.
But tracking is an unnecessary evil.
Even in today’s tracking-obsessed digital ecosystem it’s perfectly possible to target ads successfully without placing people under surveillance. In fact right now, some of the most effective and highly valued online advertising is contextual — based on search terms, other non-tracking based data, and the context of websites rather than intrusive, dangerous surveillance.
Let’s be clear. Advertising is essential for small and medium size businesses, but tracking is not.
Rather than creating advertising that is more relevant, more timely and more likable we are creating advertising that is more annoying, more disliked, and more avoided.
I promise you, the minute tracking is outlawed, Facebook, Google and the rest of the adtech giants will claim that their new targeting mechanisms (whatever they turn out to be) are superior to tracking.
Behavioral ads are only more profitable than context ads if all the costs of surveillance – the emotional burden of being watched; the risk of breach, identity-theft and fraud; the potential for government seizure of surveillance data – is pushed onto internet users. If companies have to bear those costs, behavioral ads are a total failure, because no one in the history of the human race would actually grant consent to all the things that gets done with our data.
Google and the entire tracking industry relies on IAB Europe’s consent system, which has now been found to be illegal.
There’s an interesting thread on Github about the tongue-twistingly named
Let me back up…
Progressive web apps. You know what they are, right? They’re websites that have taken their vitamins. Specifically, they’re responsive websites that:
The web app manifest—a JSON file of metadata—is particularly useful for describing how your site should behave if someone adds it to their home screen. You can specify what icon should be used. You can specify whether the site should launch in a browser or as a standalone app (practically indistinguishable from a native app). You can specify which URL on the site should be used as the starting point when the site is launched from the home screen.
So progressive web apps work just fine when you visit them in a browser, but they really shine when you add them to your home screen. It seems like pretty much everyone is in agreement that adding a progressive web app to your home screen shouldn’t be an onerous task. But how does the browser let the user know that it might be a good idea to “install” the web site they’re looking at?
The Samsung Internet browser does ambient badging—a
+ symbol shows up to indicate that a website can be installed. This is a great approach!
I hope that Chrome on Android will also use ambient badging at some point. To start with though, Chrome notified users that a site was installable by popping up a notification at the bottom of the screen. I think these might be called “toasts”.
Needless to say, the toast notification wasn’t very effective. That’s because we web designers and developers have spent years teaching people to immediately dismiss those notifications without even reading them. Accept our cookies! Sign up to our newsletter! Install our native app! Just about anything that’s user-hostile gets put in a notification (either a toast or an overlay) and shoved straight in the user’s face before they’ve even had time to start reading the content they came for in the first place. Users will then either:
Xin the corner of the notification.
A tiny fraction of users might actually click on the call to action, possibly by mistake.
beforeinstallprompt can be used.
It’s a bit weird though. You have to “capture” the event that fires when the prompt would have normally been shown, subdue it, hold on to that event, and then re-release it when you think it should be shown (like when the user has completed a transaction, for example, and having your site on the home screen would genuinely be useful). That’s a lot of hoops. Here’s the code I use on The Session to only show the installation prompt to users who are logged in.
The end result is that the user is still shown a toast notification, but at least this time it’s the site owner who has decided when it will be shown. The Chrome team call this notification “the mini-info bar”, and Pete acknowledges that it’s not ideal:
The mini-infobar is an interim experience for Chrome on Android as we work towards creating a consistent experience across all platforms that includes an install button into the omnibox.
I think “an install button in the omnibox” means ambient badging in the browser interface, which would be great!
Anyway, back to that thread on Github. Basically, neither Apple nor Mozilla are going to implement the
beforeinstallprompt event (well, technically Mozilla have implemented it but they’re not going to ship it). That’s fair enough. It’s an interim solution that’s not ideal for all reasons I’ve already covered.
But there’s a lot of pushback. Even if the details of
beforeinstallprompt are troublesome, surely there should be some way for site owners to let users know that can—or should—install a progressive web app? As a site owner, I have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint. But I also understand the security and usability issues that can arise from bad actors abusing this mechanism.
Still, I have to hand it to Chrome: even if we put the
beforeinstallprompt event to one side, the browser still has a mechanism for letting users know that a progressive web app can be installed—the mini info bar. It’s not a great mechanism, but it’s better than nothing. Nothing is precisely what Firefox and Safari currently offer (though Firefox is experimenting with something).
In the case of Safari, not only do they not provide a mechanism for letting the user know that a site can be installed, but since the last iOS update, they’ve buried the “add to home screen” option even deeper in the “sharing sheet” (the list of options that comes up when you press the incomprehensible rectangle-with-arrow-emerging-from-it icon). You now have to scroll below the fold just to find the “add to home screen” option.
So while I totally get the misgivings about
beforeinstallprompt, I feel that a constructive alternative wouldn’t go amiss.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Except… there’s another interesting angle to that Github thread. There’s talk of allowing sites that are launched from the home screen to have access to more features than a site inside a web browser. Usually permissions on the web are explicitly granted or denied on a case-by-case basis: geolocation; notifications; camera access, etc. I think this is the first time I’ve heard of one action—adding to the home screen—being used as a proxy for implicitly granting more access. Very interesting. Although that idea seems to be roundly rejected here:
A key argument for using installation in this manner is that some APIs are simply so powerful that the drive-by web should not be able to ask for them. However, this document takes the position that installation alone as a restriction is undesirable.
I understand that Chromium or Google may hold such a position but Apple’s WebKit team may not necessarily agree with such a position.
Yesterday I wrote about how much I’d like to see silent push for the web:
I’d really like silent push for the web—the ability to update a cache with fresh content as soon as it’s published; that would be nifty! At the same time, I understand the concerns. It feels more powerful than other permission-based APIs like notifications.
Today, John Holt Ripley responded on Twitter:
hi there, just read your blog post about Silent Push for acthe web, and wondering if Periodic Background Sync would cover a few of those use cases?
Periodic background sync looks very interesting indeed!
It’s not the same as silent push. As the name suggests, this is about your service worker waking up periodically and potentially fetching (and caching) fresh content from the network. So the service worker is polling rather than receiving a push. But I’ll take it! It’s definitely close enough for the kind of use-cases I’ve been thinking about.
Interestingly, periodic background sync also ties into the other part of what I was writing about: permissions. I mentioned that adding a site the home screen could be interpreted as a signal to potentially allow more permissions (or at least allow prompts for more permissions).
Well, Chromium has a document outlining metrics for attempting to gauge site engagement. There’s some good thinking in there.
After Indie Web Camp in Berlin last year, I wrote about Seb’s nifty demo of push without notifications:
While I’m very unwilling to grant permission to be interrupted by intrusive notifications, I’d be more than willing to grant permission to allow a website to silently cache timely content in the background. It would be a more calm technology.
Phil Nash left a comment on the Medium copy of my post explaining that Seb’s demo of using the Push API without showing a notification wouldn’t work for long:
The browsers allow a certain number of mistakes(?) before they start to show a generic notification to say that your site sent a push notification without showing a notification. I believe that after ~10 or so notifications, and that’s different between browsers, they run out of patience.
He also provided me with the name to describe what I’m after:
You’re looking for “silent push” as are many others.
Silent push is something that is possible in native apps. It isn’t (yet?) available on the web, presumably because of security concerns.
It’s an API that would ripe for abuse. I mean, just look at the mess we’ve made with APIs like notifications and geolocation. Sure, they require explicit user opt-in, but these opt-ins are seen so often that users are sick of seeing them. Silent push would be one more permission-based API to add to the stack of annoyances.
Still, I’d really like silent push for the web—the ability to update a cache with fresh content as soon as it’s published; that would be nifty! At the same time, I understand the concerns. It feels more powerful than other permission-based APIs like notifications.
Maybe there could be another layer of permissions. What if adding a site to your home screen was the first step? If a site is running on HTTPS, has a service worker, has a web app manifest, and has been added to the homescreen, maybe then and only then should it be allowed to prompt for permission to do silent push.
In other words, what if certain very powerful APIs were only available to progressive web apps that have successfully been added to the home screen?
Frankly, I’d be happy if the same permissions model applied to web notifications too, but I guess that ship has sailed.
Anyway, all this is pure conjecture on my part. As far as I know, silent push isn’t on the roadmap for any of the browser vendors right now. That’s fair enough. Although it does annoy me that native apps have this capability that web sites don’t.
It used to be that there was a long list of features that only native apps could do, but that list has grown shorter and shorter. The web’s hare is catching up to native’s tortoise.
Now this is a feature request I can get behind!
I’m serious about this. It’s is an excellent proposal for WebKit, similar to the never-slow mode proposed by Alex for Chromium.
Remember when I wrote about using push without notifications? Sebastiaan has written up the details of the experiment he conducted at Indie Web Camp Berlin.
On the first day of Indie Web Camp Berlin, I led a session on going offline with service workers. This covered all the usual use-cases: pre-caching; custom offline pages; saving pages for offline reading.
But on the second day, Sebastiaan spent a fair bit of time investigating a more complex use of service workers with the Push API.
The Push API is what makes push notifications possible on the web. There are a lot of moving parts—browser, server, service worker—and, frankly, it’s way over my head. But I’m familiar with the general gist of how it works. Here’s a typical flow:
Here’s what Sebastiaan wanted to investigate: what if that last step weren’t so intrusive? Here’s the alternate flow he wanted to test:
I think this could be a real game-changer. I don’t know about you, but I’m very, very wary of granting websites the ability to send me push notifications. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever given a website permission to interrupt me with push notifications.
You’ve seen the annoying permission dialogues, right?
In Firefox, it looks like this:
Will you allow name-of-website to send notifications?
[Not Now] [Allow Notifications]
In Chrome, it’s:
name-of-website wants to
But in actual fact, these dialogues are asking for permission to do two things:
There’s no way to ask for permission just to do the first part. That’s a shame. While I’m very unwilling to grant permission to be interrupted by intrusive notifications, I’d be more than willing to grant permission to allow a website to silently cache timely content in the background. It would be a more calm technology.
Think of the use cases:
Then when I’m on a plane, or in the subway, or in any other situation without a network connection, I could still visit these websites and get content that’s fresh to me. It’s kind of like background sync in reverse.
There’s plenty of opportunity for abuse—the cache could get filled with content. But websites can already do that, and they don’t need to be granted any permissions to do so; just by visiting a website, it can add multiple files to a cache.
So it seems that the reason for the permissions dialogue is all about displaying notifications …not so much about receiving push messages from the server.
I wish there were a way to implement this background-caching pattern without requiring the user to grant permission to a dialogue that contains the word “notification.”
I wonder if the act of adding a site to the home screen could implicitly grant permission to allow use of the Push API without notifications?
In the meantime, the proposal for periodic synchronisation (using background sync) could achieve similar results, but in a less elegant way; periodically polling for new content instead of receiving a push message when new content is published. Also, it requires permission. But at least in this case, the permission dialogue should be more specific, and wouldn’t include the word “notification” anywhere.
Sally takes a long hard look at permissions on the web. It’s a fascinating topic because of all the parties involved—browsers, developers, and users.
In order to do permissions well, I think there are two key areas to think about - what’s actually being requested, and how it’s being requested.
Is a site being intrusive with what they can potentially learn about me (say, wanting my precise location when it’s unnecessary)? Or is it being intrusive in terms of how they interact with me (popping up a lot of notifications and preventing me from quickly completing my intended task)? If one of those angles doesn’t work well, then regardless of whether the other is acceptable to someone, they’re likely to start opting out and harbouring negative feelings.
In this excerpt from his forthcoming book, Cennydd gives an overview of what GDPR will bring to the web. This legislation is like a charter of user’s rights, and things don’t look good for the surveillance kings of online advertising:
The black box will be forced open, and people will find it’s full of snakes.
A collection of interface patterns for granting or denying permissions.
Software is politics, because software is power.
The transcript of a tremendous talk by Richard Pope.
This a great proposal: well-researched and explained, it tackles the tricky subject of balancing security and access to native APIs.
Far too many ideas around installable websites focus on imitating native behaviour in a cargo-cult kind of way, whereas this acknowledges addressability (with URLs) as a killer feature of the web …a beautiful baby that we definitely don’t want to throw out with the bathwater.
Twitter has come in for a lot of (justifiable) criticism for changes to its API that make it somewhat developer-hostile. But it has to be said that developers don’t always behave responsibly when they’re using the API.
The classic example of this is the granting of permissions. James summed it up nicely: it’s just plain rude to ask for write-access to my Twitter account before I’ve even started to use your service. I could understand it if the service needed to post to my timeline, but most of the time these services claim that they want me to sign up via Twitter so that I can find my friends who are also using the service — that doesn’t require write access. Quite often, these requests to authenticate are accompanied by reassurances like “we’ll never tweet without your permission” …in which case, why ask for write-access in the first place?
To be fair, it used to be a lot harder to separate out read and write permissions for Twitter authentication. But now it’s actually not that bad, although it’s still not as granular as it could be.
One of the services that used to require write-access to my Twitter account was Lanyrd. I gave it permission, but only because I knew the people behind the service (a decision-making process that doesn’t scale very well). I always felt uneasy that Lanyrd had write-access to my timeline. Eventually I decided that I couldn’t in good conscience allow the lovely Lanyrd people to be an exception just because I knew where they lived. Fortunately, they concurred with my unease. They changed their log-in system so that it only requires read-access. If and when they need write-access, that’s the point at which they ask for it:
We now ask for read-only permission the first time you sign in, and only ask to upgrade to write access later on when you do something that needs it; for example following someone on Twitter from the our attendee directory.
Far too many services ask for write-access up front, without providing a justification. When asked for an explanation, I’m sure most of them would say “well, that’s how everyone else does it”, and they would, alas, be correct.
What’s worse is that users grant write-access so freely. I was somewhat shocked by the amount of tech-savvy friends who unwittingly spammed my timeline with automated tweets from a service called Twitter Counter. Their reactions ranged from sheepish to embarrassed to angry.
I urge you to go through your Twitter settings and prune any services that currently have write-access that don’t actually need it. You may be surprised by the sheer volume of apps that can post to Twitter on your behalf. Do you trust them all? Are you certain that they won’t be bought up by a different, less trustworthy company?
If a service asks me to sign up but insists on having write-access to my Twitter account, it feels like being asked out on a date while insisting I sign a pre-nuptial agreement. Not only is somewhat premature, it shows a certain lack of respect.
Not every service behaves so ungallantly. Done Not Done, 1001 Beers, and Mapalong all use Twitter for log-in, but none of them require write-access up-front.
Branch and Medium are typical examples of bad actors in this regard. The core functionality of these sites has nothing to do with posting to Twitter, but both sites want write-access so that they can potentially post to Twitter on my behalf later on. I know that I won’t ever want either service to do that. I can either trust them, or not use the service at all. Signing up without granting write-access to my Twitter account isn’t an option.
I sent some feedback to Branch and part of their response was to say the problem was with the way Twitter lumps permissions together. That used to be true, but Lanyrd’s exemplary use of Twitter for log-in makes that argument somewhat hollow.
In the case of Branch, Medium, and many other services, Twitter authentication is the only way to sign up and start using the service. Using a username and password isn’t an option. On the face of it, requiring Twitter for authentication doesn’t sound all that different to requiring an email address for authentication. But demanding write-access to Twitter is the equivalent of demanding the ability to send emails from your email address.
The way that so many services unnecessarily ask for write-access to Twitter—and the way that so many users unquestioningly grant it—reminds me of the password anti-pattern all over again. Because this rude behaviour is so prevalent, it has now become the norm. If we want this situation to change, we need to demand more respect.
The next time that a service demands unwarranted write-access to your Twitter account, refuse to grant it. Then tell the people behind that service why you’re refusing to sign up.
And please take a moment to go through the services you’ve already authorised.
I wish to cover the entire Brighton Pavilion in Bakelite for my own amusement.
Let’s be polite. Especially when starting relationships.
Andy sounds a cautionary note: the password anti-pattern may be dying, but OAuth permission-granting shouldn’t be blasé. This is why granular permissions are so important.
A one-stop-shop with links to the authentication settings of various online services. Take the time to do a little Spring cleaning.