Thursday, 23 April 2015

How Internet Ads Inhibit Freedom

by Robert Merriam

It’s pretty hard to go anywhere on the internet without seeing Ads. They pop up before you tube videos, hang about in the corners of most web pages and suggest themselves to us on Facebook. And this isn't surprising, advertising is the lifeblood of the internet it’s the thing that has turned online media from a hobby to a viable career for millions of people. Huffington Post, College Humour, Yahoo, Cracked, Facebook all of these sites rely at least partially on Ad revenue to function. The same goes for the entirety of the You tube community some of whom live solely off ad revenue. In 2013 internet advertising revenues reached $42.6 billion, a score to rival television advertising. It is without a doubt quickest, easiest and most common way to make money from content online but some fairly major problems seem to be emerging.

Starting with YouTube. Their service ‘AdSense’ is what allows you posting videos on their site to put Ads in front of their videos, earning you money. However by agreeing to this you are allowing Google (You Tubes owner) to take 32% of the profit from your videos, which is fair enough; if you’re making money on their site it makes sense that they get a share and if you don’t like it you can publish your content elsewhere... Except you can’t. You tube is the third most visited site on the internet, no other video sharing site comes anything like close to it. If you want to make a living or even a hobby out of online video you pretty much have to do it through You Tube. But if you’re starting out now it’s going to be really difficult, much more so than it was a few years ago. Now that You Tube has its celebrities with millions of guaranteed viewers the site pushes them to the forefront gently diverting visitors to the site toward the biggest people on it, because that is where the money is. The result is that what was a level playing field where anyone could make it is now becoming a hierarchy in which it is very hard to reach to the top, with the few who got there first reaping the benefits and effectively closing the gate on the potential next generation. And if you’re hoping to find success without Ads it’s even more hopeless as you’ll be of no interest to You Tube financially, and can’t hope to be noticed.

But if you do happen to be a successful channel or site with good income from Adverts on your content there is another issue. Say hypothetically that your site is a news sight (a la Huffington Post) and 100% of the Ads on your site are for Coca Cola. If you were to publish a story exposing that Coca Cola is made of cockroaches and dirt Coca Cola would pull the Ads from your site, meaning that you can’t make any money. In this situation your independent, self made business basically belongs to Coca Cola because they control your income and can cut it off at any point.

That is of course a gross over simplification but it is the problem that arises when you rely on advertisers for a profit, your income is made up of small payments from larger companies that can afford internet advertising in essence making you a subsidiary of these huge co-operations. This sullies the idea that the internet is a more free open place than the mainstream media. Can we fully trust anyone that relies on advertising to put their income on the line for a risky joke or a scandalous news story? Or that the opinions they are expressing are theirs or that of a co-operation?

We are not yet at a stage where advertisers have this much control but I do not think it is unrealistic to believe that they could in the near future. The internet evolves at such a rate and at the moment it is heading in a direction I don’t think I like. So is there an alternative? As this article has probably made clear I’m not an expert in this field but I do have a suggestion. What about paying for stuff? It makes sense, it's only until very recently that we've come to expect free content, there are plenty of people I would be happy to pay 0.2 pence per video to watch, especially if it alleviates the possibility that they might be censoring themselves to appease advertisers. Sites like Patreon allow viewers to fund content creators like this and they have become more popular as content creators try to break out of the confines of Ad dependency.

Either way it seems we may be at a crossroads for online media, do we want it free at point of delivery or for our content creators to be free to do what they wish.

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