Newspapers, subscriptions, and privacy

Quite often now, when I click on a link to a news article, I am greeted by a message explaining that I will not be able to see it. In some cases, the news site asks me to please turn off the ad blocker. In other cases, the site will ask me to please buy a subscription. What I do then is just close the window. I will get my information some other ways. And I will continue doing that until the news sites stop their gross attacks against their readers privacy.

Many newspapers are ad funded. Even those that are funded by subscriptions also run ads. They were doing that in print form, and they continue doing that with the web. Now, to be clear, I did not care much for the printed ads, but that never stopped me buying newspapers. Ads on the web are different. They tend to be more aggressive than print ads, what with animations, interstitials and pop ups. That’s annoying, but that’s not the worst. The worst is the tracking technology behind these ads.

On the web, ads bring more money if they are “targeted”. This desire for targeting created an arms race between advertisers, eager to find new ways to learn about their targets – that is, about us. The advertisement technology has given us ad auctions and a complex opaque ecosystem that basically attempts to keep tabs on people and their browsing history. Many of us believe that this “corporate surveillance” system is just evil. The best protection against that surveillance is to use ad blockers, or more specifically tracking blockers.

Of course, blocking ads also blocks the revenues of the ad-funded newspapers. They would like us to turn off the blocker, or to buy a subscription. And it makes sense, because we need to pay the journalists. The problem there is that buying a subscription does not prevent the tracking. Whenever I get one of those suggestions from a news site, I attend to find and read their privacy policy. If I did buy a subscription, what would they do with my personal data?

The typical “privacy” policy is hard to find. For the New York Times, for example, you have to scroll to the very bottom of the home page, the very last line of gray tiny print, and find the “privacy” keyword. (It is here: https://www.nytimes.com/content/help/rights/privacy/policy/privacy-policy.html.) If you click on it, you get a long page that was probably vetted by a team of lawyers and describes every kind of tracking and advertising that they could think off. Another example would be “Wired”, for which the privacy policy link hides in small print in the middle of the subscription form. The link points to the generic policy of the publishing group, Conde Nast (http://www.condenast.com/privacy-policy/). Again, the text reserves the right to track the user in every which way and use the information however they see fit. A newspaper like the Guardian will quite often publish papers railing against state surveillance, but take a look at their privacy policy: https://www.theguardian.com/help/privacy-policy. Again, they reserve the right to collect all kind of data and use it for targeting advertisements.

Nowhere will you get something as simple as “if you subscribe and you opt to not be tracked, we will not track you and we will also not let third parties track you through our site.” And that’s too bad, because if they did say that I would in fact subscribe to many of these newspapers. But what you get is instead, “if you subscribe, we will verify your identity in order to check the subscription, and we will track you even more efficiently than if you were not a subscriber.” No, thanks.

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About Christian Huitema

I have been developing Internet protocols and applications for about 30 years. I love to see how the Internet has grown and the applications it enabled. Let's keep it open!
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