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Rise of Ad Blocking Is the Ad Industry's Fault, Says Outgoing FTC Commissioner

Julie Brill says consumers are ‘taking matters into their own hands’ after the ad industry crippled the ill-fated Do Not Track program.

A commissioner at the US Federal Trade Commission who is leaving the agency after six years of working on consumer privacy issues has some critical words for the ad industry.

Speaking with Ad Age, departing FTC commissioner Julie Brill lamented the current state of consumer tracking and data collection on the web, linking the rampant rise of ad blockers with the ad industry's foot-dragging and non-cooperation in the commission's efforts to create privacy systems based on user consent.

"We've seen an incredible rise in consumers taking matters into their own hands, which is precisely what I said would happen back then," said Brill, who has tackled a host of consumer privacy issues during her tenure at the FTC.

Like many critics, Brill points to Do Not Track, the failed system meant to allow consumers to opt-out of invasive tracking by flagging their browsers, which the ad industry fought tooth-and-nail and eventually killed by ignoring the flags outright. She says that the industry's resistance to doing things the "easy" way is at least partly to blame for the consumer response.

"In some ways I think that effort fizzled because the multi-stakeholder process broke down," Brill said of the failed DNT program. "There were entities involved that weren't supporting the direction the group was heading and withdrew from the effort. It would have helped industry and consumers to have some rules of the road in online tracking."

Since then, the ad industry has experienced explosive growth in significant part through its unrestrained use of third party trackers, which collect information about website visitors to the delight of large data brokers like Axciom and Experian, which then use those digital breadcrumbs to build and monetize advertising profiles of Internet users.

In addition to privacy, ads have more recently become a major security issue. So-called malvertising campaigns now strike with alarming frequency, exposing tens of millions of users to malware by infecting the very networks advertisers use to convince us to buy shit.

It's no wonder, then, that there's now a cottage industry for ad-blocking and privacy extensions like uBlock Origin, Disconnect, Ghostery and Privacy Badger. Since most online publishers (including Motherboard) depend on ad revenue to survive, some sites have responded by forcing users to disable ad-blockers and tracker-blockers, sometimes not distinguishing between the two.

Like Brill's comments suggest, it's crazy to think this all could have been avoided if the ad industry would have just played ball with Do Not Track. But the industry has become voracious in its quest for growth, and whoever replaces Brill will be hard-pressed to work toward some kind of compromise.