Several articles swirled around early this week about Salon.com’s (sorry, not going to link it) new ad-blocking choice to users. You can:
- Disable your ad blocker to see the content, including ads.
- Keep your ad blocker on, but allow Salon to mine bitcoin with “spare processing power”
This is a terrible, terrible system for several reasons.
Bitcoin isn’t mined with “spare processing power,” as the FAQ claims. It’s mined with electricity, that you pay for, for no reason at all. I’m not going to go into super detail because this post, written on a related topic, has a great explainer on how Bitcoin “mining” actually works (jump to “Why this is bad” in the post).
Also included in the FAQ, “nothing is installed” on the user’s computer if they choose to opt in to mining. This also isn’t true. It’s true in the sense that I don’t have to download and install a program in the traditional sense. But, if I opt in, Salon installs a script silently through the browser which begins to work in the background with no notice to the user.
Also this week (coincidentally), there was a malicious mining script placed on thousands of government websites. When a user loaded a page, the mining script went to work at the expense of the user’s computer. As cryptocurrencies continue to bubble, I think we’ll be seeing more and more of these “opportunities” at the expense of the user.
The problem with ads isn’t the fact that I’m seeing ads. The problem is that ad technology on the web is invasive, expansive, opaque, and a really terrible experience for most users. Ad software builds a profile of an individual to target more “relevant” ads based on your browsing history. If a company tracks you on a particular page, that page’s content is stored and called up next time you hit a page with that company’s software.
These algorithms are totally opaque - no one knows exactly how they work, which means you - the user - are a product, not the consumer. As a consumer, sure, I want to see relevant ads. But that data which is used to show me advertisements is also sold by clearinghouses to other companies for profit. I’m a transactional item, not a customer. The nature of advertising on the Internet has fundamentally changed.
Salon’s adoption and PR to convince people that this is a fair exchange is misleading and doesn’t do anything to address the fact that Salon-the-organization is getting money from companies with shady, at best, business practices. Selling readers while claiming they’re selling ad space takes advantage of illiteracy in how the Internet works. Masking this practice is underhanded and should be recognized.