The Tyranny of the Default

David Barton Acceptable Advertising, AdBlock 2 Comments

Modern life is complicated enough without having to think about every decision or tweak every setting. Most of the time it’s easier to rely on the default option. Decisions cost time, while defaults move things along, removing the speed bumps from existence. Defaults make it possible for us to interact with complexity and cope with an excess of choice, but can be deceptively powerful, influencing decisions that are effectively invisible to the person supposedly making the decision.

Many psychological studies have shown that the tiny bit of extra effort needed to alter a default is enough to dissuade most people from bothering, so they stick to the default. The Technium

Because they don’t have unlimited energy or time to expend on decisions, people place a lot of trust in existing defaults, granting them tyrannical powers:

…the tyranny of the default is sort of the expression I like to use for that most users don’t go in and change things. They just assume that someone smarter than them chose the settings that are best for them… So what that means is that, if it’s enabled by default, it’ll tend to stay on. Steve Gibson on Security Now Podcast

Defaults can be manipulated to have significant financial impact. Apple iPhone users who don’t even consider changing the default “Sent from my iPhone” signature are pumping out free advertising with every email. Some defaults mean the difference between life and death. Rates of organ donation can be significantly higher in countries with opt-out systems. As was argued in a 2003 study in Science Magazine, choosing an opt-out system means that many people will never make the effort to opt out:

…every policy must have a no-action default, and defaults impose physical, cognitive, and, in the case of donation, emotional costs on those who must change their status. Science Magazine

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix and other Internet behemoths have put immense effort into reducing decision overload by getting better at predicting what we want and personalizing their services. This is wonderful for making us feel that we have the world at our fingertips, but a heavily-personalized Internet can trap a user in a filter bubble which “invisibly transforms the world we experience by controlling what we see and don’t see.” If defaults are the hidden omnipotent arbiters in the struggle between overload and invisibility, then their power is very clear when we look at Internet advertising. Harassed by ads which interrupt and distract, users are increasingly turning to adblocking. The default behavior of adblockers is to block everything, to put the user in a bubble where advertising simply ceases to exist. Some websites try to persuade their loyal users to unblock them or even pay a one-off fee to view the site without ads. This can work for some, but users have limited patience and again it comes back to making choices. Nobody wants to make a case-by-case decision for every site they visit. For the average visitor, being asked to add an exception can feel like being asked for a donation of their time, rapidly resulting in something similar to compassion fatigue. PageFair’s own statistics show that it’s probably futile for websites to rely on their users adding adblocking exceptions:

  • Only 0.33% of adblockers that were shown an appeal to accept ads actually added an adblock exception
  • Of those 0.33%, one-third eventually removed the exception.

Relying on donations from loyal users is just as bad:

  • Only 3 users per million who were given the option to make a donation did so. This represents less than $0.01 CPM.
  • Using this appeals method, publishers were only earning $10 per million visitors.
  • This is just 1/25th the revenue that a publisher could earn from Google Adsense.

Adblocking at the moment uses a blunt, crude default that arose because the previous default allowed bad ads to run riot. Research shows that users don’t actively want every ad to be blocked, they just want the worst offenders removed from their path. Unfortunately, all advertising gets caught up in the crossfire at the moment, threatening to kill off publishers who depend on advertising revenue to survive. Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ads program is at least a move in the right direction, permitting certain approved ads to pass through its filter by default. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough and even blocks acceptable ads until their publishers negotiate access to the program. Surely if an ad is “acceptable” then it should never be blocked in the first place? Adblock plugins should be making responsible choices about what ad formats they block by default. An ethical adblock plugin would only block by default those ads that drive users to install adblockers in the first place, such as non-skippable pre-roll ads or popups. Unilateral blocking of less intrusive formats, such as text, means that good publishers get punished along with the bad. Even better, ethical adblockers should require every user to explicitly check off what ad formats to block, with objectively-chosen defaults. The tyranny of the default gives adblocking great power, and it should be wielded responsibly.

  • Mark

    “Surely if an ad is “acceptable” then it should never be blocked in the first place?”

    That implies everybody has the same idea of ‘acceptable’ in the first place, and quite clearly they don’t. You can’t mandate ‘acceptable to all ‘ any more than you can users favourite colour.

    Perhaps the reason adblockers use harsh defaults reflects the fact the industry has always used – and lobbied for – defaults that serve them rather than users, leading to pointless legislation like CAN SPAM. Indeed this article does no more than propose a different set of defaults in the name of a spurious definition of ‘ethical’; quelle surprise, they happen to lean in your favour.

    What the industry has studiously avoided precipitating is a debate with users about what they are prepared to accept, with the result that they can easily be accused of arrogance. All commerce involves finding a balance between all participants, and web advertising and tracking certainly doesn’t have some magic opt out on that conversation.

  • I don’t use an ad blocker. I use a tracking blocker: my browser receives a list of hostnames that are solely used for tracking users from one site to another and refuses to connect to those hostnames. This ends up behaving much like an ad blocker because ad networks and ad exchanges have a habit of tracking viewers to build an “interest-based” profile for each. But the real problem is that site operators confuse tracking blockers with ad blockers and demand whitelisting because they’re unwilling to research ad delivery methods that don’t track users.