Stop the internet browser cartel from blocking alerts and de-funding news publishers.
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GOING UP AGAINST THE BROWSER CARTEL
OUR ACCESS TO INFORMATION IS BROKEN
Apple and Google are preventing you from getting important alerts and killing an entire industry of journalism by blocking code on publisher pages that help communicate life-critical alerts and provide critical revenue to journalists reporting on important issues like COVID-19. The good news is that there are folks looking to change this. I am choosing to lead the charge for a fairer, more humane, internet. Please sign and share this Petition to help support my efforts.
What would you say if you had the opportunity to save a kidnapped child, but you never knew about the child being missing? What if the online information channel you use every day was blocking you from seeing the kidnapping alert?
As widely available as we think information is today, the truth is access through journalism is totally broken. And there are a few big dogs to blame.
HOW ACCESS TO INFORMATION WORKS TODAY
Our channel into the internet is so seamless that we sometimes even forget it exists. That channel, the browser, is controlled by two companies: Google (~62%) and Apple (~25%). And so, in that way, Google and Apple control all the information we see.
The providers of the information are called Publishers. These are websites like CNN.com, religious news, or small guys like your local news source. They can also be blog pages, or even e-commerce stores, but in this Petition we will focus on news outlets.
News publishers need advertising dollars to survive. It’s basically their primary form of paying the bills, and it always worked like this. When things were analog, newspapers got big bucks from advertisers. They distributed newspapers to a mass audience, and there was little competition, so the papers could charge top-dollar for an Ad. The high Ad costs supported journalists in their discovery of meaningful stories. As things began to move into the digital world, competition increased, and the price of ads decreased. This forced newspapers to compete for cents on the dollar to gain our attention so that they can serve us an ad (yep, they literally just get a few cents for every website visitor that views an ad). In this new world, news publishers create sensational content to vie for readership. This kind of journalism sows public distrust in the press and, by extension, in democracy. But, how else can a journalist make money with a consumer-base accustomed to “free” media?
In the digital world, publishers don’t go directly to advertisers. They usually work through an AdTech network, and there are tons (over 50) platforms out there. The AdTech networks have a relationship with Advertisers and try to optimize the ads that go through to each page based on what’s relevant to the user. That’s a good thing. We get ads that we really care about instead of the blanket ads we used to see in analog newspapers. How do AdTech platforms personalize ads for us? Well, that’s where the Browser Cartel comes in.
AdTech platforms get a “cookie” from the Browser. That cookie is unique to you and follows you around the internet. AdTech platforms use that cookie to learn about what you’re interested in so that they can make sure you get personalized offers anywhere you go in the entire internet. For example let’s say you go on a weight lifting blog. The AdTech platform will say “Let’s classify you as a fitness junkie.” Then, when the AdTech platform sees your cookie appear again on another web page, like a news site, they say “I’m going to serve you a fitness ad on that news site.”
Now, you may be concerned about your privacy in all this, right? Well, know this: a cookie isn’t tied to your personally identifiable information. It doesn’t have your name or your physical address associated to it. And, there are a ton of professionals who ensure that your privacy is kept sacred. But, to keep our information even more private, companies that owned Browsers decided to take the approach of blocking cookies from AdTech platforms. Safari has already done this for more than a decade and Chrome announced that they were planning to do this soon too.
Here’s the thing: companies that control the Browsers also have AdTech platforms or special relationships with AdTech platforms. So, when they started to withhold our cookies from being seen by other AdTech platforms, they effectively formed a “cartel,” cloaked in privacy, to kick competitors out of the market and drain billions of dollars from ad funding for journalism while enriching themselves. All’s fair in capitalism, right?
ADTECH FOR GOOD
When I began my legal career in the AdTech space, I noticed the internet's power in reaching consumers. I thought: “Hey, if we can serve marketing content to people wherever they go online, why can’t we also use that Ad space to serve them critical alerts?” So I founded an organization called the Federation for Internet Alerts (FIA) to notify the public of missing children, tornado warnings, and other relevant content. Basically, instead of an Ad, you get a critical notification in the Publisher’s Ad “block” on their website. FIA grew to become the largest alerting system in the world, serving 7 billion alerts across 31 countries. Last year I went on to receive a humanitarianism award on behalf of FIA from the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children for this effort.
As I experienced the Cartel's growing interest in blocking cookies, however, I was met with some challenges. First, I wasn’t able to serve information such as missing child alerts. This, in and of itself, is tragic when you consider that there was a need for 7 billion critical alerts in 31 countries. The voice of lost children, trafficked children, or kidnapped children was being hampered.
Next, I noticed that the blocking of cookies was also killing the business of many news publishers. They simply weren’t getting Ad dollars and had to foil their businesses. That’s why you aren’t getting local trusted and relevant news about coronavirus in your region.
I'm not new to doing big things. I've tried to meet Apple, directly, to encourage people in that organization to open up cookies. They cancelled my meeting. I filed a Bugzilla report with Apple. No response. But I'm not stopping there. I'm raising awareness of the issue so that the public can get involved with their local congressmen to undo the damage. I am now writing this petition to seek the public's support.
THE OPTIMAL PATH
Working with congressmen to open up cookie data for AdTech platforms is a solid solution. But perhaps there are other, longer term, solutions that we can innovate on.
Ideas of removing advertising from the news Publisher model have been toyed with. Harvard Business Review (HBR) proposed that, while we can’t get rid of advertising across all Publishers, maybe we can just pull journalism out of the mix over time. We can do this by ether relying on support from private capital (philanthropists and small donations) or we work toward creating a publicly subsidized model. “In the former approach, struggling commercial newspapers could become local public trusts by transitioning to low- or nonprofit institutions that can take charitable contributions,” says Victor Pickar, the author of the article. In the latter approach, Victor goes on to say that “news and information are treated as what economists might call a public good. A public good is a service that the private sector is unlikely to provide because it is unprofitable and consumers are unable or unwilling to pay for it. (Other examples include education, health care, defense, and infrastructure.) Since public goods often yield tremendous benefits for all of society, and since healthy democracies depend on them, the state supports what markets can’t.”
There are, of course problems with both approaches. Do we really want to depend on the good of a few people to ensure that we get information? Do we really want our government controlling it? And, we will need to think of ways to incorporate critical alerting into the solution. So..maybe there is yet another path. Is it a new Browser, just for news? Maybe. Maybe not. But either way, this problem is prime for innovation by the public, and it can draw from ideas around public good, the power of your voice to make an impact with regulators, and new technology solutions. I am asking for you, the public, to submit your support, by signing this petition, for local journalism's and missing children's right to have their code accessible to alerts and important revenue to feed reporters and local news investigators across the world! Thank you all!
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