What the EFF Doesn’t Understand

A few choice words for the Electronic Frontier Foundation

This post is personal, and from the perspective of somebody who works at a company that was mentioned in the news. The views stated here are my own and do not represent the official views of company. Any inaccuracies are unintentional and my fault alone.

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The company I work for, eyeo GmbH, recently released a version of Adblock Plus for Firefox on desktop. The update includes a new Settings Page which provides a variety of options that users can enable or disable with a single click. One of those options, Acceptable Ads, is on by default, and includes a new feature allowing users to opt-out of Acceptable Ads with tracking, specifically.

In response, the EFF wrote a couple of articles that were aimed squarely at eyeo, Adblock Plus, and this particular attribute of the product. One article is a critique of the new update, including their particular issues with our product itself, our policies, and the company in general. The other article provides step-by-step instructions for disabling Acceptable Ads with third-party tracking.

The TL;DR version of both articles boils down to the following:

  • The old product was flawed
  • With the new product, users are still exposed to security and privacy risks
  • Acceptable Ads should be an opt-in feature, not opt-out
  • Acceptable Ads without tracking should be enabled by default for users that have tracking protection enabled
  • Because eyeo is a commercial entity, its motives, business practices, and criteria for Acceptable Ads are suspect
  • Acceptable Ads are just a shady scheme to make more money anyway
  • By the way, here is some advice for fixing all these various problems…

As an outsider reading those articles, I would probably think that eyeo is a shitty, evil, greedy company. Thank goodness the EFF came to the rescue on behalf of users everywhere and sounded the alarm!

But I’m not an outsider. I’m very much an insider. Which is why I wanted to share my own assessment of the situation.

Context is everything

What those articles omitted was that eyeo attempted to collaborate with the EFF on the new Settings Page way before it was ever released. It began a long time ago with an email from them pointing out a particular conflict regarding tracking protection and Acceptable Ads. I personally set up a few of our initial meetings to discuss their issues and to share with them our plans for the next release — including the new Settings Page. We then responded to their feedback as much as we could at that time, and showed them our revisions. They still did not approve, and weren’t especially interested in further involvement.

We even invited them to join the Acceptable Ads Committee, which is a completely independent, non-profit organization that represents users, publishers, advertisers, technology companies, and user rights advocates who are entirely responsible for the Acceptable Ads criteria. In fact, we thought the EFF was the perfect organization to advocate for user rights online, and knew full well that privacy was of utmost importance to them. By having a seat on the Acceptable Ads Committee, they would have had an opportunity to evangelize important issues with the very people who matter most to the future of advertising on the web. Unfortunately, they declined.

Then, suddenly after we launch the new ABP and Settings Page for Firefox, the EFF shares their opinion with the world — quite starkly, and with heaping mounds of moral superiority.

My theory: They couldn’t get their way, on their terms, or according to their preferred schedule. So instead the EFF decided to pressure eyeo into doing what they want by making us a public spectacle (and maybe even instigate a user boycott in the process to make it really sting).

Regardless of their intentions, the EFF is of course free to make any critique they want of us, or anyone else. We always have, and always will, applaud their commitment to user rights online and dedication to privacy, security, and better business practice issues. I don’t fault them expressing their views. But I do take issue with the implications they made in doing so.

History is everything

About those Acceptable Ads...

Before Adblock Plus and other ad blockers existed, there was basically one way publishers could earn money for the content they produced: advertising. More importantly, completely new industries were built around the technologies that delivered those ads automagically, in real time, and without human intervention. When Adblock Plus and others started getting really popular, therefore, publishers were getting hammered, and they had absolutely no control over the situation.

That’s precisely the reason why the founders of eyeo created “Acceptable Ads” in the first place: so publishers could still earn revenue for the free content they provide to users who have an ad blocker installed. Most users didn’t seem to mind seeing some simple, nonintrusive ads (if they noticed at all). It was a good, albeit small step forward for the web publishing industry that allowed users to continue consuming content for free. Over time, the company has gone to extraordinary lengths to create fair, user-centered standards that publishers and advertisers can implement easily on their websites.

Still, eyeo has always gotten a lot of flak for Acceptable Ads, whether it’s about our motives, our policies, the money we earn, or the Acceptable Ads Committee. Still, after years of calling us dirty names, the IAB eventually teamed up with industry giants to form the Better Ads Coalition. And now, the entire online publishing and advertising community is suddenly concerned and very serious about ad quality. Dare I say that Acceptable Ads have instead had an overall positive effect on the entire web, even if they are far from perfect?

About that Acceptable Ads Committee…

The original criteria were indeed determined by eyeo, but based on actual user research. Once we began offering a whitelisting service to partners, we quickly realized that credibility and fairness were of chief concern to everyone. The Acceptable Ads Committee was therefore formed earlier this year to take over all responsibility for the criteria as an independent body of representatives from across the web community. eyeo no longer has any say, and doesn’t even have a seat on the committee.

The EFF could have had a seat at the table. They turned it down. And now they question Acceptable Ads on principle. But wouldn’t users have benefited more from EFF’s influence on a committee made up of important/influential people, than from a scary blog post about eyeo? Just sayin’.

About the new option on the Settings Page…

Once we learned about the issues EFF had with the original implementation of Acceptable Ads and its conflict with tracking protection, we immediately started working on solving the issue. We had a number of challenges and limitations to deal with. For one, we wanted to make it clear to users what Acceptable Ads are, and what their options were on Adblock Plus. We also had to respect our partners, who rely on Acceptable Ads to generate revenue for the free content they publish. If we made Acceptable Ads an opt-in feature, many users would never try the product with Acceptable Ads enabled in the first place, and thus would deprive publishers even more revenue. By making it an opt-out feature, publishers stand a better chance at earning money through noninvasive ads while still giving users the choice to participate. Furthermore, ads without any tracking are less relevant and therefore less effective, which means fewer users will respond. And if users aren’t clicking ads because they aren’t relevant, advertisers aren’t making any money… which means publishers aren’t making any money… which means the whole notion of “free” content is in peril. Again. That’s why Acceptable Ads without tracking are a secondary option.

Is our solution perfect? Absolutely not. Would I personally rather that Acceptable Ads were an opt-in feature on Adblock Plus? Absolutely. Would I prefer that online advertising didn’t require tracking to work effectively? Most definitely. Maybe one day those things will be true. But the world we live and work in is complex and imperfect. Gigantic problems like improving the online advertising industry take a really long time to solve, and require a lot of hard work along the way. Our primary goal with this latest update was to at least make the options explicit, and to make it as easy as possible to configure the product without have a huge, negative impact on the publishers who make the web a place worth visiting. On that metric, the new Settings Page is a huge improvement.

The Settings Page will continue to evolve over time, and we’re committed to making it better, more transparent, and more fair. However, it will require willingness and cooperation with the very publishers and advertisers who are critical to keeping content on the web free for everyone.

About the company…

Yes, eyeo is a for-profit, commercial enterprise. We charge partners with massive volumes a fee for participating in Acceptable Ads. And I, personally, make absolutely no apology for it.

Our core mission is to provide users more choices over the content they consume on the web, while offering publishers and advertisers ways to fund the content they provide. We can do that most effectively, and on a scale that matters, by being a company.

The web economy is just like any other capitalistic system: money matters. If we were to become a non-profit that developed nothing but pure ad blockers with every privacy feature imaginable built in, we would gain loads of credibility with users and organizations like the EFF… but such products don’t generate large user bases, and without a substantial user base we would have very limited relevance with companies and industry leaders. As a non-profit, we would have a limited number of supporters, and equally limited influence on the industry as a whole. But as a company that serves users and partners in major markets or industries — with real money and longterm sustainability of huge businesses at stake — we’re in the best possible position to influence all the players at once, and in a positive way.

Also, nearly all of the money eyeo makes is invested back into the company. Just six years ago, eyeo was a 3-person startup without an office or even chairs to sit in. Today, the company employs 112 people worldwide, and offers a suite of products that collectively offer users, publishers, and advertisers a better experience online. eyeo also has two offices to facilitate all the work that happens, outfitted with all the equipment and systems needed to collaborate and communicate. Meanwhile, we’ve managed to become profitable and sustainable. I’m super proud of all these facts.

Finally, about all the people who work at eyeo. We’re mostly a bunch of nerds who care about the internet. We were founded on open-source principles. Privacy and security are so central to everything we do that sometimes it feels like we get nothing done. We barely know anything about our users, and any data we collect is only with their explicit permission. We even fight over whether or not our internal processes are transparent enough (let alone our external ones). In other words, we care deeply and passionately about everything we do, and strive to build the best possible product solutions for all stakeholders (not just one group in particular).

In conclusion, I fail to see how being a for-profit company somehow makes us untrustworthy or corrupt by default in any way. Our actions will determine that. And so far, I see a company that’s in it for the long game, and genuinely wants to make a positive difference.

So when the EFF claims to see “dark patterns” in eyeo or its practices, I call “bullshit”.

Values are everything…

At the end of the day, the only big difference between the EFF and eyeo is our ideology. Our values, however, are essentially the same. We believe in an open web that’s free and fair to all. We think existential threats to privacy and security must be addressed. Whenever we show up to court, we frame our arguments in terms of user rights, and in doing so have won major victories that protected those rights for users in Germany and other European Union nations. Above all, we believe in truth, transparency, and accountability. So instead of pressuring us to comply with their point of view, I would rather they continue to work with us, and others like us, in a more positive way.

Until then, I can only hope the EFF doesn’t give up any more opportunities to contribute directly to the sustainability of the web in the name of “principles” or reluctance to work with “evil” companies. That approach is the opposite of effective or positive.

At eyeo, that’s what we want to be most of all: Effective and for the greater good. This is what the EFF doesn’t seem to understand.