Geek On The Hill

The Race to Kill the Web

The World Wide Web has resulted in more rapid and radical changes to society than any technology since man learned to harness fire. Of that there can be little doubt. The free availability of information about any topic, to anyone, anywhere, at any time has touched literally every field of human endeavor and will continue to do so — if it survives. Whether or not it does survive, however, is something about which I’m becoming less and less certain. There are too many people trying to kill it. I’ll begin with one group of which I am a member:

Webmasters and Web Site Publishers

As illogical as it may seem that Web professionals would be trying to kill the very medium upon which their careers depend, that’s exactly what we as a group are doing through advertising that is excessive, intrusive, annoying, violative of privacy; and which uses code that is so voluminous, bloated, buggy, and poorly-written that it slows and crashes browser loads so much as to sometimes make the sites unusable.

I got a call from a friend last night who asked me to help her with a problem. Her favorite online newspaper site was showing up as a bank page. There were no error messages and the browser didn’t crash. The pages were simply blank.

I asked her the URI and tried to load the page myself. It loaded fine, albeit very slowly. The reason was because the bazillion ads on the page and all their associated scripts were slowing the page load time to a crawl even on my 60 Mbps Interwebs connection.

I took a look at the source code, and the first thing I noticed was that they’d added a class to the opening HTML declaration that essentially declared the whole page to be one big ad (which it pretty much was, in all honesty) so that Adblock and other ad blockers would block the entire page if they were enabled. It was a crude¬† countermeasure against ad-blocking software that would be easy for a savvy Adblock user to defeat. I’ve written and occasionally deployed much better countermeasures. But for the majority of less-savvy users, it does effectively block the entire page as a penalty for blocking the ads.

I told my friend to turn off her ad blocker. She did, and the page loaded. I know how to defeat the simple countermeasure that the site used, but I didn’t tell her how. I don’t believe in ad blockers. Ads are what pay for the free Web; and if a site has too much or too-annoying advertising, then I believe the only appropriate response is to click out and not go to that site anymore. Blocking the ads is stealing from everyone who spent money conceiving, building, writing, editing, and hosting the site, and stealing is wrong. Going elsewhere is more like a boycott. That’s completely different.

In fairness, though, I also must say that the publisher of the site in question brought it on themselves. I looked at the code for the page, and it was almost 2,500 lines, fully three-quarters of which were advertising JavaScript. That’s simply excessive. When the advertising slows the page to the point that it takes eight to ten seconds on a 60 Mbps connection to load a page that’s little more than a bunch of text links once you subtract the ads, that’s simply too much effing advertising. That doesn’t mean that I endorse blocking the ads, but I do understand why users do so: The advertising is simply excessive by any reasonable standard.

Which brings me to the second group of people who are trying to kill the Web:

AdBlock Users

Back in olden times, someone unleashed something so vile and loathsome on the Interwebs that before long, every browser on the planet was equipped with technology to block it. No, I’m not talking about malware, cat videos, nor even rickrolling. I’m talking about something far worse: the pop-up ad. Pop-ups were so utterly annoying and distracting that even I, as someone who earns my living on the Web and opposes ad-blocking, carve out an exception for pop-up ads. I also extend that exception to light box ads and anything else that uses a light box without the user initiating it. Light boxes are just today’s reiteration of pop-up ads, and they are every bit as evil.

So if a user wants to block pop-up ads and light-box ads, more power to them. The problem is that too many users feel they have the right to block all advertising on a site. Some even object to text advertising links, which have to be the least-intrusive ads of all. I mean, seriously, you’re reading the text anyway (except possibly on pron sites), so what difference does it make if the text link opens to an ad? No one’s forcing you to click on it, and certainly no one’s forcing you to buy anything from the landing page if you do click on it. Just ignore the text links, and they will ignore you. But that’s not how some people see things. If it’s an ad, they’re opposed to it, no matter how polite and well-behaved it is.

Regardless of one’s opinion about whether or not blocking ads is stealing, one thing I think most people would agree with is that site publishers are not going to keep their sites online forever if they’re losing money on them. Ads pay for the vast majority of the sites on the Web. Is blocking ads so important to you that your don’t care if that most of the of the Web disappears? Because that’s exactly what will happen when ad blockers render advertising monetization of the Web impossible. Nonetheless, judging by the popularity of ad blockers, the answer apparently is yes for many people. They’d rather that the sites they visit cease to exist than that they see ads on them.

Google and Facebook

I’ve become persuaded that Google and Facebook are the two worst things ever to happen to the Interwebs — not because of the services they provide, which are mediocre at best, but still marginally useful to some people; but because they have made a mockery of any notion that a person can do something simple like watch cat videos on a Web site without their entire life and everything about it that they thought was private being packaged in black fishnet stockings and sold to the highest bidder like a street whore

Google and Facebook are the pimps of the Web, and we’re all their whores, whether we choose to be or not. The scripts, cookies, bots, and beacons are so ubiquitous that short of blocking them at the firewall, it’s impossible to do anything at all on the Web for more than a minute or two without Google and Facebook knowing about it. That’s fine if you’ve consented to it because you want to use their shitty, supposedly “free” services. But if you haven’t consented, then it’s a nothing but an electronic form of human trafficking.

Hackers, Crackers, and Script Kiddies

Just a notch below Google and Facebook we find those who make their money and/or get their jollies from placing viruses, worms, ransomware, spoofware, and other malware in places where they hope unwitting Web users will come across it, infect their computers with it, and suffer whatever harm or damage the payload is designed to inflict.

It’s getting to the point that some people I know refuse to even use the Internet for financial transactions anymore, and you’d be surprised to know how many of them there are. I was at my credit union today and one of the staff told me that paper checks are making a comeback. People are ordering checks who haven’t bothered with them in years. They’re afraid of identity theft, credit card fraud, loss of their data, doxing, and other forms of harm that can be inflicted by cybercriminals.

As much as I’d like to reassure them about the safety of the Web, I can’t. I know that all of these things and worse actually do happen to people and businesses every single day; and the frequency, sophistication, and consequences of the hacks are increasing all the time. Just ask Hillary Clinton and the DNC.

When I ponder all these things, I can’t help wondering whether the Web as we know it is doomed. Its monetization basis is being undermined, respect for user privacy and the quality of a user’s experience are things of the past, and the dangers of using the Web for even the most mundane tasks are becoming ever more perilous. That’s not a recipe for success

The Web itself will survive, of course, but I fear that it will be a very different kind of place. Webmasters and publishers will continue to create ridiculously bloated pages with so many ads and buggy scripts that no sane person would want to view their sites without an ad blocker. Then once they succeed in making comprehensive ad blockers as ubiquitous as pop-up blockers, the vast majority of ad-monetized niche sites catering to every possible interest will be gone because their publishers won’t be able to pay the bills. And just in case that weren’t enough to kill the Web, Google, Facebook, and the hackers, crackers, and other miscreants collectively will scare many users off the Web altogether by way of their privacy violations or outright criminality.

In short, my fear is that the Web will become like a fax machine: Something we use when we have to, but not something that’s particularly interesting or exciting. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s becoming harder and harder for me to find reasons why I’m wrong.