Balance Web for Privacy, Speed

Craig Federighi, Apple senior vice president software engineering.

Craig Federighi, Apple senior vice president software engineering.

The World Wide Web makes written, photographic and video works available in volume and with ease that has existed for less than a generation.

This opening of media has been double-edged.

Over the past few years, the web’s clear routes of travel across a world of information have been cluttered and slowed by obtrusive advertisements. These ads block webpages and delay their display. Trackers, used by ad companies to build dossiers on readers and bolster advertising, further degrade the web.

Apple announced Monday that its next Safari web browser will include a tracking blocker this fall. This offers hope for a faster, more private web, less cluttered by such intruders. In a similar vein, reports of a Google plan to use industry standards for an ad blocker in a 2018 version of its Chrome browser could lead to reasonable presentation of advertising. This would benefit websites without obscuring the content sought by readers.

The two approaches should be encouraged and adopted by all browser-makers, and embraced by web publishers.

WEB TANGLING

As the web developed in the 1990s, publishers — particularly of printed material such as books, magazines, newspapers and photographs — found their work devalued. Why would one buy a printed version when the same material could be viewed online free and instantly?

As a result of lost income, print publishers have trimmed operations, converted to online operation or have simply gone out of business.

As publishing companies and individuals moved online, advertising appeared on most of their websites, much as they had on the pages of newspapers and magazines.

Now, in a publishing twist of which only the ever-changing internet is capable, online publishing is in the midst of its own wave of income loss.

In the early days of web publishing, ads were static. They looked and acted much like printed ads, with the exception of containing a hyperlink. Click on the linked ad, and the website for the advertiser would appear. That arrangement was simple-and-fair.

Today’s tricks result in ads and trackers that multiply file sizes by many times. As a result, not only do they increase page-load time greatly but data usage, which can be costly on smartphones. Such mobile devices are the predominant means of viewing the web now.

PRIVACY

Readers have taken back their web access by installing ad blockers in their browsers.

More than 1 in 10 use ad blockers worldwide and more than 1 in 6 use them in the United States. Internationally, usage grew 30 percent in 2016. Many ad blockers also block trackers.

Whether motivated by desperation or greed, publishers that overindulge in web ads and trackers find their income plummeting. These poor decisions also have diminished well-behaved websites. Readers have blocked the ads and trackers of gluttonous sites, or moved on.

Information is vital for readers, but ease of use is paramount.

Monday, Apple announced intelligent tracking prevention for the next version of its Safari browser. The updated browser is scheduled to arrive in new mobile and computer operating systems this fall, the company announced during its World Wide Developers Conference in San Jose, California. Safari is the second-most-popular web browser. It is used in iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch mobile devices, and in Mac computers.

“Have you ever had this experience where you go to buy something on the web? You even complete the purchase, and then it seems like everywhere you go on the web, it just follows you around,” said Craig Federighi, senior vice president software engineering. “It kind of feels like you’re being tracked. That’s because you are.”

Apple’s approach is to find trackers on webpages and halt their movement. Using machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence that allows computers to draw their own conclusions and act upon them, Safari will prevent tracking beyond the website viewed, protecting privacy.

In our testing, we found popular websites with over 70 such trackers, all silently collecting data on users.
— John Wilander, Apple browser-security engineer

Another Apple engineer explained the steps.

“Imagine a user who first browses example-products.com for a new gadget and later browses example-recipies.com for dinner ideas,” said John Wilander, an Apple browser-security engineer, Monday on the WebKit blog. WebKit is an open-source organization created by Apple. It develops the foundational programing code on which Safari runs and makes it available to others.

Under many circumstances, Wilander said, “the owner of example-tracker.com has the ability to know that the user visited both the product website and the recipe website, what they did on those sites, what kind of web browser was used” and more.

“In our testing, we found popular websites with over 70 such trackers, all silently collecting data on users,” he said.

Additionally, Apple said Monday that it will block automatic playing of videos in the fall version of Safari.

STANDARDS

Google is planning not only to build an ad blocker into its Chrome browser in 2018 but also to base its ad blocking on a set of industry standards, reported The Wall Street Journal on April 19. Chrome, the most popular web browser, is available for nearly all mobile devices and computers.

Google is expected to follow standards released March 22 by the Coalition for Better Ads, The Journal reported. The coalition contains advertisers, ad providers and ad associations.

Among the ad types rejected by the standards are “pop-up ads, prestitial ads, ads with density greater than 30 percent, flashing animated ads, autoplay video ads with sound, poststitial ads with countdown, full-screen scrollover ads and large sticky ads.” A prestitial ad, usually full-page, loads before the home page. A poststitial ad, usually full-page, loads at the end, during credits. A scrollover ad is full-page and must be scrolled through completely before the website can be seen.

The Journal reported June 1 that Google has told publishers it will give them notice of six months before releasing its built-in ad blocker and will provide a program to test ads to see if Chrome will block them.

Skepticism over Google’s ad blocker, and its motivation for it, is reasonable. Google is one of the web’s top advertising companies. Advertising made up 88 percent of the revenue for Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, in 2016. Chrome’s ad blocker will not stop ad trackers or all types of ads, The Journal reported. Most add-on blocking programs are comprehensive. Also, skepticism is warranted for the ad-industry makeup of the Coalition for Better Ads.

Nonetheless, the standards are a good start.

All makers of web browsers — especially Microsoft with its Edge browser and Mozilla with its Firefox browser — should follow the lead of Apple by blocking trackers and autoplay videos. Google should follow through on its standard-based ad-blocking effort, as should other browser-makers, including Apple.

Advertisers cannot be relied upon to stop their race to the bottom. Nor can publishers that allow outlandish, counterproductive ads and trackers on their websites. Stave-off-the-creditors desperation is understandable but not an excuse. Greed is unacceptable. Advertisements that turn away readers or lead them to block all ads must be eliminated for production of useful web content to thrive.

Balanced-but-firm standards must be used in web browsers and by advertisers to strike a useful balance between web users and web publishers.

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