Commentary

Newspaper Association Slammed For Anti-Privacy Stance On Ad Blockers

The Newspaper Association of America brushed aside Web users' legitimate privacy concerns in its complaint to the Federal Trade Commission about ad blocking. That's the gist of a recent Electronic Frontier Foundation critique of the newspaper group's FTC filing.

"Regardless of the reason or effect, users should be able to employ software that provides anonymity from one website visit to the next," the digital rights group says in a blog post.

The EFF's post comes in response to the newspaper group's Federal Trade Commission filing, which argues that ad blockers engage in unfair and deceptive tactics. The NAA makes numerous arguments against ad-blocking companies, including that they effectively allow users to circumvent metered paywalls.

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Newspapers using metered billing allow visitors to read a limited number of stories for free, but charge fees to people who exceed the maximum. But some ad-blocking technology enables users to access sites anonymously -- which effectively deprives newspapers of the information they rely on to identify repeat visitors.

The NAA argues that this type of anonymization software violates the "public policy underlying antitrust laws" by posing a risk to consumer welfare.

"Given that subscription efforts are a significant way that publishers support high-quality, professionally edited journalistic content, the offering of technologies that evade these subscription programs undercuts the industry’s ability to continue to innovate and meet consumers’ demands," the NAA says in its complaint.

The NAA adds that consumers are harmed because they don't receive "offers and other communications from publishers about alternatives to ad-blockers."

And, the group says, newspapers themselves suffer because they can't glean subscription revenue from the anonymized visitors.

But the EFF counters that banning privacy tools isn't an answer. "Outlawing privacy-enhancing software simply because it might interfere with the operation of some newspapers’ metered paywalls would be profoundly anti-consumer," the digital rights group says. "The FTC, which puts considerable resources into enhancing consumer privacy and encouraging the development of new privacy tools, would depart from its mission if it agreed to NAA’s request."

The EFF offers a tool, Privacy Badger, which blocks ads and content from ad networks that track users without their permission. The NAA's complaint did not mention Privacy Badger by name, and the EFF says the tool "probably" doesn't affect metered billing plans.

Still, the group writes, efforts to crack down on privacy services poses a threat to Privacy Badger. "A new rule that outlaws efforts to avoid user tracking over time would put all browser-based privacy efforts at risk," the EFF writes.

"Ad-blockers and tools like Privacy Badger put pressure on publishers and ad networks to deliver high-quality ads and avoid violations of user privacy," the organization adds. "The FTC needs to proceed with extreme caution here to target truly deceptive and abusive practices without interfering with Internet users’ ability to protect their privacy, control their browsing experience, and be active participants in online innovation."

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