There are many issues regarding our privacy or lack thereof. From my perspective, the most irritating form of privacy intrusion is the recent trend in video advertising. Although there are examples of subscription-based content that is advertising-free, it is true that advertising is necessary to cover the cost of most journalism and creative productions that we consume. Some people love their brands and are happy to hear from them. The intrusion I am referring to is the new trend in advertising made possible by the ubiquity of video on our devices. Suppose you are reading a news article about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). You are really into the subject and reading with the intention to understand what the author wrote. You are focused on the content. In your reading, you come upon a link to a term or phrase in the article that allows you to drill a bit deeper into the topic. You click on the link, and up pops a video advertisement about a new car or a vacation in the mountains. Your continuity of thought has just been torpedoed. Your brain was attacked. This is the ultimate invasion of privacy.
In November, I was a panel moderator at a conference on the Future of the Internet, Media/Entertainment and Mobile Devices in New York City held by Lehigh University. As a prelude to the conference, a number of us had a tour at AOL I asked the executive who met with us about this new trend. He agreed with the point about disruption of continuity of thought. He used a simpler term — he called it “an annoyance” — but confided that advertisers are insisting on the practice. In other words, advertisers are paying money for their ads to be seen and they want to force us to watch them whether we want to or not. Some video ads have a “skip ad” button. Some require you to watch at least ten seconds and then you have the choice to continue watching the ad or to skip it. My point is that even ten seconds destroys continuity of thought. I do not think I am alone in finding the practice inconsiderate.
I am not suggesting that ads be banned. I am simply asking for choice. The first commercial web site I can recall using was weatherunderground.com. Beginning in 1991, a PhD student at the University of Michigan wrote a menu-based telnet interface which displayed real-time weather information around the world via the Internet. In 1995, the popular weather site got a web interface. The most innovative and forward-thinking feature of the site was that for $5 per year, you got Ad-Free Weather. The fee today is $10 per year, which I happily pay. For the modest fee, weatherunderground.com removes all the ads from their site, providing the viewer with a cleaner, uncluttered, faster site access. For $10 per year you get no banners, no dancing bears, and no sponsored links. Regardless of what device you are using, your access to weatherunderground.com provides continuity of thought for your weather information. Could the social networks and news sites offer a similar option? They surely could. I don’t know the economics — how much it would cost per user per year to have Ad-Free access. Perhaps the vast majority of people don’t mind the ads and would prefer to save the money. For me, I would like to save continuity of thought.