TechCrunch shares the disturbing news that some bright bulb has developed software that allows ISPs to insert ads into web pages as they pass through the ISPs servers. The user is then unable to tell the difference between ads that are “supposed” to be there (and presumably benefit the creator of the content they’re perusing) and ads inserted by their ISP without the knowledge or consent of the author(s) of the web pages in question. Quoting TechCrunch:
As a content creator I’m horrified that any page I create could be plastered with advertisements I don’t approve of as I’m sure many others will be as well. There are probably copyright issues as well in terms of hijacking original works for profit. We can only hope that this evil form of advertising does not spread beyond Texas.
This blog, for example, is free of ads so far, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. We simply don’t get enough traffic to warrant such things. You, however, might be seeing it with ads that I know nothing about, which put no money in my pocket, and without you being aware that I didn’t put them there.
Ugly as this is, the extreme case is truly horrifying. Potentially every server that passes along your HTML packets could be inserting ads and otherwise altering or rearranging content. We could reach a point where the page viewed bears almost no resemblance to the page served, totally undermining any and all efforts to introduce some reasonable design principles to this intarweb thing. (Not to mention all the privacy and censorship issues that would naturally arise.)
As useful as I find blogs like TechCrunch and Pharyngula, for example, both are already horribly blighted by oceans of ads, many of which blink, move, wiggle, and jump in ways that make me want to beat someone publicly. And those ads are placed there by the people that run (or at least manage) those sites, who have a vested interest in not making their web pages so awful people just won’t go there. ISPs will have no such compunction because they’ll pollute everything equally, so their only real risk is annoying their users so much that they switch ISPs (not always an easy option) or simply stop going on-line (which would take a lot of annoying).
I suspect, however, that encryption could do a lot to solve this problem. I haven’t thought through the details, but I suspect that encrypting all web pages using something like
https would make it impossible for ISPs to insert their ads because they’d no longer have access to the raw HTML. It would cause an increase in the amount of traffic on-line (encrypted information is almost always larger than its raw, unencrypted form), but I suspect this would be nothing compared to all the traffic generated by YouTube. And I’m betting nearly everyone would gladly wait a tiny fraction of a second longer for their page to download and decrypt if it kept it free of all this ISP spam. What would be nasty is if encryption schemes ran contrary to the powerful monitoring urges of governments; it would really suck to drown in spam just so Big Brother can keep an eye on what crazy music I’m listening to on-line.