I’ve been watching the recent discussion of (and revelations about) the state of the online ad industry lately. It’s clearly out of control. We know ad revenue is the only source of income for many of the sites that provide the content we love (or at least prefer to waste our time with). Without income, only children or those who have childlike minds would expect these providers to work as indentured public servants just so we can enjoy yet another wildly inaccurate (and poorly edited) listicle. Ads are obnoxious but paywalling everything would certainly stifle the free flow of information that makes the Web the wonderful boon to global civilization it is. So what’s the solution? I have a “modest proposal” (that doesn’t involve eating children).

While it’s possible to create an alternative revenue source that’s workable for all (using micro-payments with trusted providers to bundle commonly-associated subscriptions, maybe slightly higher payments for guaranteed do-not-track, for example), it doesn’t solve the enormous problem of free flow of information. It’s also more than a little ridiculous when subscriptions are taken to the obvious extreme. So it seems the ad-supported nature of our favorite content providers is going to be sticking around awhile. So assuming the only way forward is to reform the existing ad-revenue-supported model, how can we?

###What We Don’t Like

Nobody likes Youtube’s forced 30-second ads. They’re too long for “some random user’s video”. This isn’t television and the content of television, at best, is so-so these days, but it’s professional content at least. A burst of loud ads is expected (although, in the US, the FCC has begun enforcing a volume control rule - sensible) and the delivery mechanisms involved in the content you’re trying to watch on television are definitely costlier (though for largely artificial reasons). But lulzguy69’s two-minute video with five seconds of actual interesting content (mostly covered visually by unhelpful tips such as “subscribe if you like this!” and prefaced by several screens of text and over a minute of what looks to be an exercise in shaky-cam techniques and pointless rambling) is not worth suffering through thirty entire seconds of (insert shrill, coquettish pop star here) pimping their latest album, even though they ought to know (via data mining) I have zero interest in such things because I’m not a 15 year old girl. Or maybe they think I am…

Nobody likes web pages that are mostly multiple ads with maybe two minutes’ read worth of content. Especially when those ads purposefully slow the page loading, continuing to communicate and run scripts, thereby shortening battery life and eating tons of bandwidth.

###A Compromise

So here’s my proposal: We compromise between swallowing revenue-generating ads (and the minimum of information they can glean and sell when served) and content usability / “subscribability”.

How do we do that? Simple:

  1. Serve ads only to non-subscribers (whereby “subscriber” means either to that site or conglomerate of sites via micro-payments or discounted long-term membership).
  2. Non subscribers are served, at most, only one ad before they can see the content. A brief delay is acceptable before clickthrough is allowed unless the ad is clicked, then the user gets the ad content in a separate window and is immediately allowed to view the content.
  3. Advertisers pay more per impression because ad placement is in the premium spot. Anything less is greed and such advertisers can be quickly frozen out of the industry.
  4. Every ad served has a “report this” link, which notifies both the advertiser and the content provider. Every one. Advertisers who don’t pull problem ads in a timely manner can be similarly frozen out of the industry by content providers.
  5. Every ad served has a “subscribe to this site / these sites” link to remove ads.
  6. Every ad served must display its reputation score (a function of all user reports via “report this” link across all sites over which the ad was served, maintained by a trusted third-party). Those with poor grades (and the sites who continue using them without regard to their users) will similarly be frozen out by the industry and consumers alike. This will quickly kill “bad actors” (those who are obnoxious, waste bandwidth, run nefarious scripts, try to install malware, etc.).
  7. Script / ad blocker / tracker plugins can work with the independent third-party grading system(s) automatically, by letting the user choose to accept ads / scripts / limited tracking by those who cooperate with this system.
  8. Those content providers who choose to provide “a few free reads” at some rate can do so but the visitor must allow basic tracking (“I’ve already seen my ad for the next n views on this site / conglomerate”).
  9. Users who don’t subscribe and use tracking blockers are knowingly trading “free views” for anonymity (they’ll be shown an ad every time because the provider can’t know if they’ve seen one recently). If they don’t load the ad and wait the (brief) wait to at least ensure exposure, they don’t get the content. Fair is fair.

I don’t think this is by any means a perfect system but I believe it adequately and fairly addresses the current problems for all parties involved. I admittedly use tracking / ad / script blocker plugins on my (MacBook Pro) browser and can’t wait for iOS 9 to allow this for my iPhone, but I only began doing so in the last few years because of the very real problems that are now being discussed in the public spotlight. I’d gladly switch on the feature I suggested in point #7 above: allow trusted advertisers but to hell with everyone else. I think if we’d make these changes, these problems (and the ad networks and content providers that insist on using them) will be a thing of the past by this time next year.

But nobody ever listens to me… ;-)