EU proposal will legitimise and protect surveillance as the business model of the web: unless we oppose it now

Andrus Ansip, Vice President for the E.U.’s Digital Single Market, is proposing a rule that would allow digital publishers to “punish visitors using ad blockers”, according to an article today in Forbes.

This proposal showcases the unforgivable shortsightedness of a European Commission that sees digital technology merely as a market and people as merely users and consumers, entirely ignoring the crucial role digital technology could play as a commons and a public sphere when people are instead seen as citizens.

Furthermore, this proposal entirely ignores the privacy-related human rights considerations at the core of the so-called “ad blocking” debate.

It’s not about ads, it’s about trackers

To make any meaningful progress on understanding the issue, we must differentiate between “ad blocking” and “tracker blocking”.

“Ad blocking” is traditionally concerned with improving the superficial web experience of users by hiding conspicuous advertising. Tools that self-identify as “ad blockers” are rarely, if ever, concerned with the privacy implications of web tracking.

“Tracker blocking”, on the other hand, is about protecting people’s human right to privacy on the Web.

Tracker blockers, like Better, give individuals the ability to protect themselves from invasions of their privacy on the Web by empowering them to block surveillance by corporations.

The reason tracker blockers are often conflated with ad blockers is because nearly all advertising on the Web today is behavioural advertising. In other words, nearly all advertising on the Web is based on tracking you from site to site to profile you and exploit this intimate knowledge about you for financial gain.

The vanishingly rare instances of advertising not based on surveillance is not blocked by tracker blockers like Better. In fact, we gave one such advertising network, The Deck, an award of excellence for proving that advertising on the web is possible without violating the privacy rights of individuals.

When you go on a news site like Forbes, however, surveillance is the norm and your information and behaviour gets exposed to a large number of third-party sites. Unless you have special tools, you never get to see the list of sites that are spying on you nor do you give knowing consent to having your information shared with those specific sites.

In the case of Forbes, your information is leaked to 37 other web sites. Another web site, LifeBuzz, has a staggering 172 trackers on it. In other words, there are 172 other web sites (and possibly as many different companies) that are tracking you. It’s important that we reiterate that (a) you are not aware they are tracking you and (b) you did not specifically give any of them permission to track you.

(The astute among you might state that you’re accepting this all en masse when you click away that cookie notice box and agree to a site’s terms and conditions without reading them. To reiterate, the full list of actual sites/companies that are tracking you are rarely/if ever stated in any of those. Also, cookies are only part of the problem as behavioural tracking also relies on third-party scripts that are loaded from sites you’ve never even heard of and allowed to execute on your computer; again without your specific knowledge or consent.)

The extent of the problem becomes clear when we reiterate that this manner of surveillance is the norm on the Web. Nearly every publishing web site monetises its content by violating the privacy of the people who use their services. This is also the business model of nearly all web giants (Facebook, Google, etc.) as well as nearly all venture capital-funded Silicon Valley web startups.

So, to summarise:

  1. Surveillance by corporations is the de facto business model of the web today

  2. While people are presented with opaque summaries of privacy violations in privacy policies, terms and conditions, and cookie notices on web sites, none of these specifically list the corporations that your information and behaviours are being shared with on a web page.

  3. Tracker blockers protect people’s human right to privacy by blocking this de facto surveillance that is endemic on the web today.

In light of this, let us look at what Andrus Ansip’s new proposal aims to do.

To reiterate, Andrus Ansip, Vice President for the E.U.’s Digital Single Market, is proposing a rule that would allow digital publishers to “punish visitors using ad blockers”.

This rule, if passed, will legitimise and – furthermore – incentivise, publishers and other web sites to:

  1. Detect when someone is using a tracker blocker to protect their privacy

  2. Tell the person to turn off their tracker blocker (and thus stop protecting themselves from corporate surveillance on the Web)

  3. If the person does not stop protecting their privacy, deny access to the site and to the content.

I cannot stress strongly enough how utterly unethical and how preposterously backwards this proposal is. In fact, this is exactly the behaviour that makes us categorise a site like Bild as malicious in Better.

Instead of tackling the endemic of tracking and privacy violations on the Web and incentivising alternative methods of monetisation (or even commons-based alternatives), Mr. Ansip’s proposal will actually reward those who track, profile, and exploit people.

Furthermore, since behavioural advertising (and tracking) is the business model of nearly all news sources on the Web, Mr. Ansip’s proposal will leave European citizens with the following unacceptable dilemma:

Do I protect my privacy or do I get access to the “free press?”

“Your privacy or your press!” yell the bandits of behavioural advertising. “You heard them…”, nudges Mr. Ansip.

If we agree that the so-called “free press” (free as in freedom, not necessarily cost) is a cornerstone of democracy, this Faustian proposal becomes even more unpalatable. Not to mention that the proposal, according to Alexander Hanff, falls foul of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

There is clearly something very wrong with the Web. It has evolved into an unsafe place where the default state is that individuals are surveilled by corporations. We have a web today where a huge publisher like Axel Springer can openly admit that its “core business … is to deliver ads to its visitors. Journalistic content is just a vehicle to get readers to view the ads.” In other words, journalism today is bait for corporations that want to violate your privacy for profit.

It is time, Mr. Ansip, to tackle the real problem.

It is time to stop supporting the oppressor in this situation of injustice and start doing your duty as a European Commissioner to protect the interests of European Citizens.

Take action now

Today, at 10AM CET, Mr. Ansip will be presenting the ePrivacy Regulation in Brussels.

It is imperative that we raise this issue and ask him to explain this preposterous proposal.

Here is the question we should all be asking Mr. Ansip (@Ansip_EU on Twitter) using the #ePrivacy17 hashtag during the event:

Dear @Ansip_EU, why must we give up our human right to privacy to access the free press? Is this a fair exchange in your view? #ePrivacy17

Additionally, here are some questions that Alexander Hanff wrote up on Twitter yesterday that you can also ask Mr. Ansip:

  1. Why was Privacy by Default removed from the draft which was leaked in December?

  2. Why has @Ansip_EU made statements to the press that publishers will be allowed to detect ad-blockers [& tracker blockers] despite the regulation not supporting this?

  3. Why has @Ansip_EU accused people who are protecting their fundamental and constitutional right to privacy of being freeloaders in the international press?

  4. Why was recital 21 added since the leaked draft in December?

  5. Why does @Ansip_EU have time to meet with global corporation who make billions form breaking EU laws but refuses to meet with civil society members who are attempting to hold those same global corporations to account?

The live stream will start at 10AM CET. Watch it at:

Get involved on Twitter to hold Mr. Ansip to account. Together, we can get this ridiculous and harmful proposal scrapped.


Wow. Follow the money.
Punishing someone for using an ad blocker is like punishing someone for turning the sound off during commercials. Seriously, when did corporations start thinking they have a right to everyones attention? Are they going to install mute button detectors on everyones remote controls? The corporate world really believes the Internet belongs to them. Thats the root…

This article, as well as the one on that it refers to, raises some questions:

Why would there be any need to propose regulations that allow publishers to deny access to content for visitors that have ad blockers?

Publishers already do this on a broad scale: deny to show content if an active adblocker has been detected. If you, as a visitor, decide you do not want to pay for content, nor want to view ads I believe it’s the publisher’s right to not show you the content. If you do want content but without ads you should pay for it.

So why would there be a need to legalise or formalise this right for content publishers since this already seems to be industry practise?

According to Ansip: “legal clarity is needed”. Forbes is unclear about the what that clarity would be and what the actual text of the proposal is. Why is there no link to Ansip’s actual proposal? “leaked” drafts? Why the secrecy? Is this yet another example of how not to do public policy, just as was done with TTIP and CETA? “Privacy by Default” was removed from the leaked draft? What did that say?

Ansip was quoted to have said that critics are “people who want free access and couldn’t care (about) editorial costs.”

He is clearly in the wrong. While most critics support an open model of information and knowledge sharing (“commons”), this has nothing to do with demanding free access. Demanding privacy may come at a price, but the biggest issue is that consumers have no choice. Most publishers only have one revenue model: content is either paid for by ads (and unwanted tracking) OR by consumers with a subscription. Publishers that use ads, don’t offer consumers to pay for their content to opt-out of ads and tracking. Publishers that do accept payments from consumers, usually require recurring payments via subscriptions. There are hardly if any one-off micropayment options.

Regulations to be proposed should be about making a clear distinction what is allowed without visitor/consumer approval between showing advertising (sometimes wanted or accepted) versus tracking, the latter being an invasion of privacy, preferably with clear warnings to consumers and making tracking an opt-in-only alternative to paying for content and/or services, rather than being the de facto standard, and the industry should be legally required to offer non-tracking alternatives.

As for Ansip’s Digital Single Market and Digital Economy and Society portfolio (as per January this year): A blockchain-based digital (micro) currency could help content publishers and service providers charge consumers rather than violate their privacy with tracking. Stop these bad practices not only though regulatory compliance but by removing the need from a business model / revenue perspective, which might also lessen industry lobbying of regulators to counter such regulations.